Some people possess a curiosity that continually drives them toward new experiences and discoveries. Shui Li, a registered patent attorney and associate at Robins Kaplan LLP, is one such individual. Growing up in Beijing, China, Li was a child who always pushed past her comfort zone to see what was beyond the horizon. In middle school, she began studying English, and she soon realized that language was the gateway to culture. With a desire to unlock the nuances of Western ways, Li, with the support of her parents, sought a post as a foreign exchange student in the United States. Her adventure took her to Hutchinson, Minnesota, where she attended high school and celebrated her 16th birthday.
“Learning the culture for one year didn’t seem like enough,” Li said, “so I applied for college. I went to the University of Minnesota Duluth, and I chose chemistry because science was interesting to me, and my English wasn’t very good. I figured if I could understand chemistry in Chinese, I could also understand it in English.”
After earning her undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, Li went on to the University of Minnesota School of Pharmacy, where she researched anti-cancer agents based on nucleic acid analogs and graduated with a masters in medicinal chemistry.
“In the lab I was working with stuff that was being patented, and I thought, what is that? I went to an interdisciplinary seminar on patent law, and it seemed interesting. I talked to a few patent attorneys and then applied to law school.”
One of those attorneys was from Robins Kaplan and advised Li to apply to the firm as a summer associate. “I did. I liked the work, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Li counsels clients on complex intellectual property and technology monetization campaigns. Her scientific training and natural curiosity have amplified her success in diverse cases involving chemicals and pharmaceuticals, as well as data encryption, user authentication, query processing, graphical user interface and mobile communication standards.
“I love this job because I am absolutely passionate about technology — because that’s what our clients are passionate about. I want to know what my clients are thinking now and what issues they might be trying to solve in five years and 10 years. We do a lot of problem solving in science. It’s one thing that drew me to it. The problems are hard, and they have no known solutions. When you’re experimenting, you’re learning and trying to solve those problems with no guarantee that the answer is out there. That training is helpful in patent law. When we take on a case, we’re taking on tough problems with no solution. Our clients are demanding. They want the best solution there is and want it done in the most efficient way possible. That’s what I like about our clients. They drive us to think about how to do it better.”
Recently, Li observed that many clients had questions about U.S.-China trade policy, in particular, export control law. She and some of her colleagues decided that since it was a concern to their clients, they should become experts on the matter.
“Growing up in China, I have the advantage of knowing how the political and judicial systems work. I can read about what’s coming out of policies being implemented — in Chinese. Last year, when the Chinese legislature met, a lot of new export control policies came out, which was significant because China hasn’t updated these in over a decade. I wrote an update and have since been monitoring regularly to see what’s out there. We expect to see even more regulation that will affect our clients greatly where they have a Chinese subsidiary or business partners who are importing technology into the U.S. It’s fun in this process to be reading between the lines and drawing conclusions that are not written in the policies to predict trends.”
Li recently joined Law360’s FinTech Editorial Board, and she said it’s just one more opportunity to be on the leading edge of what’s happening in the technological world. “The teams I work with are passionate about technology, and we’re always thinking about not just what’s happening now, but anticipating what’s coming that will affect our clients and their businesses in the future.”