A Conversation with Chua Sher Hann

Chua Sher Hann is a former KPUM President and a graduate of the University of Reading, holding an LLM in Intellectual Property Law from University College London. She currently works as a consultant at Tilleke & Gibbins, specialising in intellectual property in the South-East Asian region. Prior to joining Tilleke & Gibbins, Sher Hann was an associate at a leading law firm in Malaysia, where she advised on intellectual property, technology, franchising, and regulatory issues. You can find out more about Sher Hann’s work here.

1. With regard to your decision to undertake the CLP in Malaysia following the completion of your undergraduate degree in the UK, why did you choose to do so over the BPTC, and how did that decision impact your career path later on, if at all?

SH: The main reason why I did the CLP instead of the BPTC was because of financial limitations. Despite scoring 12As in the SPM, I was unsuccessful in securing a government scholarship to pursue my tertiary studies. Thankfully, with my parents’ support, as well as a study loan, I was able to complete my studies in the UK. Since I wanted to get qualified in Malaysia without taking on additional debt as a student, I decided to return to Malaysia to do the CLP.

Like many, I agree that the structure of the CLP examination is ripe for a revamp. Nonetheless, I think that the modules covered under the CLP are fundamental knowledge for Malaysian lawyers, especially for those who did not pursue a Malaysian LL.B. For me, the CLP was a useful crash course of the Malaysian legal system, and because classes were only conducted on weekday evenings and weekends, I was able to take up an extended internship at a law firm while doing the CLP. I do not think that the decision to do the CLP instead of the BPTC has made a huge difference to my career so far. However, many of my peers who did the BPTC felt that the rigorous advocacy training they were subject to throughout the course gave them an edge over the others at the start of their litigation careers. Although I am not a litigation lawyer, I believe that advocacy and negotiation skills are useful for everyone, and I would have loved to undergo the same formal training!

2.What do you feel is the main difference between practising in Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar?

SH: The main difference is that Malaysia and Myanmar are common law jurisdictions, whereas Thailand has a civil law system. That is not an insurmountable issue, if one is willing to learn and to adapt. I am also often asked about the language barriers faced as a legal practitioner outside of Malaysia. In Thailand and Myanmar, official documents, court judgments, and laws are typically available only in their national languages, but this has not posed any issues for me because I work with a strong team of local attorneys and in-house legal interpreters. The main language used at work is still English. Further, our multilingual capabilities as Malaysians are also beneficial in an international environment that values diversity.

3. Out of all the cases you have worked on, which would you say is your most memorable case to date?

SH: I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on many interesting matters over the years. One of the most memorable ones in recent years was a matter relating to the life story rights of individuals involved in the Tham Luang Cave incident in 2018 – the widely publicized incident where young members of a football team were trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand.

4. What are your thoughts on the data protection regimes that are currently available in South-East Asia?

SH: There are still plenty of gaps to be plugged but we are moving in the right direction as a region. Malaysia was the first Southeast Asian country to enact a specific data protection law back in 2010. Since then, countries like Singapore and the Philippines have also introduced their own data protection laws. While a few other jurisdictions, such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, still do not have comprehensive data privacy frameworks, there are indeed existing laws in these jurisdictions that offer some protection to the privacy and data of the people. It is just a matter of time before comprehensive data protection frameworks are put in place in each of these jurisdictions. Thailand, where I am currently based, is the latest Southeast Asian country to introduce a data protection framework, and the new Personal Data Protection Act is scheduled to enter into force in May 2020.

5. Why did you choose to specialise in IP law?

SH: I have always loved the arts. I grew up in a household that appreciates art and music – my dad is a full time artist, and my brothers and I are very into music, so I would say that my first exposure to IP was more copyright-focused. When I decided to venture into law, specializing in IP law then became a natural choice for me. I also like the fact that the practice of IP allows me to work on a range of contentious and non-contentious matters, be it IP prosecution and strategy work, or transactional and commercial work such as IP-focused M&As and licensing deals, as well as enforcement work in cooperation with law enforcement agencies. For those who are interested in court work, there is also IP litigation.

6. What does a day in your life as an IP lawyer look like?

SH: I always start my day by reading the news to stay updated on developments around the world. Whenever possible, I will schedule to have all my client meetings and calls in the morning. Then, I will do a virtual check-in with our regional project teams on ongoing matters, or to hold discussions with other Bangkok-based colleagues. Afternoons are spent in my office attending to client work. Before I end my working day, I will prepare my action list for the following day, and look into matters that require prioritization and delegation. Some of my evenings are spent on committee work for professional organizations, attending networking events, or writing articles. As you can see, it’s not very different from other lawyers!

Approximately once a month, I conduct tours and IP talks at my firm’s Museum of Counterfeit Goods, established as a pro bono initiative to instill IP awareness among members of the public. We also host plenty of internal CLE sessions across our regional offices, so lawyers at the firm are able to exchange knowledge and learn from each other no matter their physical location. Lawyers at my firm are also actively involved in local and international conferences, whether as participants or as speakers – last year itself, I attended about 10 conferences outside of Thailand, and spoke at 3 of them. This is a great way to expand one’s network and horizons, and I am grateful for these opportunities.

7. What would your advice be to a law student looking into pursuing a career in the field of IP law?

SH: When looking for internships, don’t forget about the exciting opportunities available beyond law firms. You can join the research lab at your university, the brand enforcement division of a luxury goods company, the legal department of a tech start up, or shadow an IP judge. A summer stint at the headquarters of a fast food franchise or at an advertising agency can also provide you with a good learning experience related to IP. If you do want to pursue an internship at a law firm, you can also consider applying to firms outside of Malaysia. Like some firms in Malaysia, many foreign law firms nowadays, including Tilleke & Gibbins, do conduct internship programs for international law students.

Next, when eventually stepping foot into legal practice, I think it is important to develop breadth in your knowledge across IP practice as a whole. Avoid over-specializing as a young practitioner. Pick a firm, or a pupil master who will allow you to gain exposure to various facets of IP work – be it copyright advice, brand enforcement, patent litigation, or trademark prosecution matters. Also, even if you are very certain that you want to specialize in IP, you can still benefit from completing your pupilage at a firm that requires you to rotate between different practice sets during those nine months. I am a strong advocate of developing range. Knowledge on corporate and commercial transactions, employment issues, tax matters – just to name a few, will benefit you in the long run.

8. In relation to the previous question, do you think it is necessary to opt for the IP Law module while in university if you are interested in pursuing it as a practice field? What advice would you offer to those who are still interested but did not manage to select that module during their studies?

SH: I believe that IP law modules developed by universities do equip students with important IP basics, so I strongly encourage aspiring IP practitioners to take up the module if given the opportunity to do so. For those who do not have the chance to do so, here are some tips:

  • Check if your university allows you to audit the module. I audited a competition law module while doing my LLM to gain a better understanding of the interface between IP and competition policies.

  • Read. The textbooks are a good start. Follow blogs like the IPKat. You can also subscribe to free newsletters published by law firms, and read the articles and case updates written by practicing lawyers.

  • Take advantage of student memberships in professional IP organizations, such as the International Trademark Association (INTA). This gives you access to an abundance of knowledge and allows you to start building your professional network.

  • Attend webinars and online courses, including those organized by the WIPO Academy. With the rise of online learning platforms like Coursera and edX, there are many learning opportunities available.

  • Apply for an internship!

About Sher Hann

Sher Hann Chua is a consultant in Tilleke & Gibbins’ Bangkok and Yangon offices. Her practice focuses on intellectual property for the firm’s offices across the region, and corporate and commercial matters in emerging markets. Sher Hann has represented a broad range of clients across industries that include automotive, energy, food and beverage, media and entertainment, real estate, and technology and information technology. She has regularly appeared before trademark registrars and government bodies on behalf of brand owners in negotiations, enforcement actions, and regulatory affairs, and advises clients on a broad range of transactional intellectual property matters. 

In 2019, Sher Hann was the recipient of the International Trademark Association’s highly coveted Tomorrow’s Leader Award—an award that recognizes young practitioners around the world who have shown exceptional leadership in the field of intellectual property. She was also recognized as a “Rising Star” in the two practice areas of Intellectual Property and Corporate & Commercial inAsialaw Profiles 2019.

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