Lawyer Limelight: Kat Li

Kat Li has always had a laser-like clarity on who she is and what she wants. She knew she would be a lawyer back in middle school, and by eighth grade, when some of us are still planning to grow up to be pro athletes or pop stars, Li had settled on patent law.

The patent aspect came from a deep interest in all things science, and, following a master’s degree in materials engineering from MIT, a J.D. with honors from University of Texas, and two years of federal clerkships, she’s working on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and law as a principal at McKool Smith in the Austin office.

Li clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and at the Eastern District of Texas, and is now on the Board of the Association of Former Law Clerks of the former and President of the Association of Former Law Clerks for the latter.

Her years of clerking, combined with her technical background, means Li can engage with inventors and technical experts, then is able to turn around and distill the information in a way that is compelling for judges and juries.

The legal profession, and the world, has a real shortage of women in STEM, and female lawyers of color are still sorely lacking. As an Asian woman practicing patent law, Li still finds herself too-often surrounded by all white men in her practice. But she’s part of the change we all want to see, including as an active mentor and a founding member of the Diversity Initiative at McKool Smith.

Li had a baby during lockdown, and we spoke to her a week after she returned from maternity leave, as she was juggling inter partes reviews with toddler meltdowns and cat cameos on Zoom meetings. Through it all, her calm and capable air gave us hope: The future looks bright.

Lawdragon: Can you tell me about your interest when you were younger in engineering and science, and how you moved into a law career?

Kat Li: I was interested in the law from a young age. The reverse trajectory is more common for patent lawyers, but I joined competitive debate in middle school and knew back then I wanted to be a lawyer. By eighth grade, I’d settled on patent law. I’d been telling everyone I was going to be a lawyer, and someone said to me, “If you like science, you should be a patent lawyer.” So I decided that’s what I would do.

LD: Were your parents lawyers?

KL: No, there are no lawyers in my family. My father is a chemical engineer; he worked in the oil industry all his life. My mother is a business analyst, and she worked in the telecommunication industry. I am the first lawyer in my family.

LD: But when you know, you know!

KL: If I could have gone to law school straight out of high school, I would have. That said, my strengths have always been in math and science. There were only three girls in my AP Physics class senior year. In high school, I won in my category twice at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

LD: Then you went to MIT for engineering?

KL: Yes, I got my bachelor’s and then my master’s in Material Science and Engineering from MIT. I originally planned to go to law school right after I graduated, but then I got into a master’s program at MIT, and decided to stay an extra year to get my master's degree before going to law school.

Yeah, I’m a nerd.

LD: Nerds are going to save us all. How then did you come to McKool Smith?

KL: After law school at UT, I clerked for former Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis of the Eastern District of Texas in Tyler, Texas, and then [former] Judge [Arthur] Gajarsa on the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. When I was with Judge Davis, I watched some of the top patent litigators in the country. We had about eight patent trials that year, which is a lot.

One of the cases that I observed involved McKool Smith. It was an interesting dynamic to watch because it was a team of only four McKool attorneys – Doug Cawley, a senior trial lawyer, and three associates. The other side had a dozen people crowded around their counsel table.

LD: That would make an impact. 

KL: Not only were there fewer people, but every single one of the McKool attorneys got up and spoke in front of the jury and took a witness – even the associates. I knew I wanted to join somewhere where I would get that level of experience early in my legal career.

LD: When you joined McKool, was it what you were expecting? Did you get that level of experience early on?

KL: It was exactly what I hoped for. I was drinking out of a fire hose, but I knew I was in the right place when I was asked to write a motion to compel early on. It had three distinct issues that the parties were arguing. The motion got set for hearing by the judge. Since I was new, I assumed I would prepare the senior attorney and get the documents ready. But, he said to me and another attorney, “Well, there are three issues here. Why don't we split it up. I'll take this one. You take this one. And Kat, take this one.” We all went to the hearing and each argued our issue. I won on my issue, too. It was all very exciting.

LD: That’s incredible. I know you’re based in Austin. I’ve heard the Western District of Texas is really picking up these days. Are you finding that?

KL: Absolutely. The Western District of Texas has seen a significant increase in the number of cases filed there after Judge Alan Albright took the bench a couple of years ago. I worked with Judge Albright before he took the bench when I was a summer associate at Fish & Richardson. He's located in the Waco Division, but often does hearings in Austin, and I am leading the work that McKool Smith is doing in the Western District.

I'm a member of Judge Albright’s working group that advises him on patent orders and rules. I've also been counseling clients on how to navigate this new district and understand its growing prominence in patent litigation.

LD: Is it growing because lawyers have a high degree of confidence in him so that's attracting more cases?

KL: Yes. Also, he’s enacted some patent rules for his court that encourage plaintiffs to file their cases there. He moves quickly in his cases too.

LD: Is most of your work focused in Texas?

KL: My practice is unique in that I represent several international clients, one of which is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. I speak Chinese, so I can communicate with clients like TSMC, and at the same time, do highly technical patent work. Another example is Ericsson, which is based in Sweden.

LD: It’s interesting because any litigator needs to learn the ins and outs of a company’s technology to communicate the issues to a jury or judge. Your technical background must really give you a leg up in being able to translate the nuances of these technologies in a courtroom.

KL: It does, yes. An attorney who has a technical background can speak directly to the company's engineers and engage with them. For example, in a defense case, it's often the product designer, the person who designed the accused product, that has technical expertise, and it is valuable to be at their level of understanding. I'm not afraid to engage those folks, ask hard questions, and pull the information that I need from them to properly defend them against patent infringement. On the other hand, if an engineer is the inventor and I’m enforcing their patent, I’m able to talk to the inventor about his or her invention story.

Building trust with the technical members of a company is so important – I want them to feel that their attorney understands them. Technical awareness is also critically important when working with technical experts who are often professors or subject matter experts. I have to talk with them through all the technical issues, and then translate it into something the jury and judge will understand.

LD: Are you able to talk about some of the cases you’re working on now?

KL: I can’t talk about most of the matters I’m working on at the moment.

LD: That’s so often the case in your area. Can you talk about why that is, where the sensitivity comes from?

KL: That comes in on both offensive and defensive work. On the plaintiff’s side, it's important to do due diligence before filing. The work that we do before we bring a case is extremely thorough, well thought out, and not taken lightly. I also have clients who aren't enforcing patents, but rather defending against patents. If they see a competitor enforcing patents against a different entity, they may say, "If that competitor comes after me, I am going to be ready." Then, there are the situations where assertion letters are sent between companies saying, "You infringe my patent. You need to stop selling your product." A lot of my work is helping clients avoid litigation by finding resolutions before an issue like this ends up in court.

LD: That makes so much sense. Now, I know you’re active on your firm’s Diversity Initiative. Will you tell us why you were drawn to that?

KL: There's a lack of representation, as you know, across the entire legal community. When you take the subset of the legal community, patent law, there’s even less diversity. More times than not, I am both the only woman and the only person of color in a meeting, especially technical meetings.

MIT was a really diverse campus, but law school was significantly less diverse. It was interesting to see how my personal racial ethnicity was not represented in law; it was something I was not used to after MIT.

A few years into my practice, I met this amazing lawyer at another firm. She was African American, older than me, and had an incredible practice. She said to me, "We women of color have to stick together." It really struck a chord with me, and I’ve been focused on building diversity and inclusion at the firm ever since.

As a principal at McKool, it is important to me that we build diversity and inclusion in our ranks. It’s crucial to the future of the firm, and a lot of it comes down to mentoring junior associates. We still have a lot of work to do. Even if you see more women in law school, you still see fewer women in law firms. If you see more women at the associate levels, you still don't see them at the partner levels. Not only do I want to see more diversity in the profession, I want to see it at the highest ranks. I am committed to working towards retention and promotion of diverse attorneys.