Katharine Wolanyk is a Managing Director at Burford, where she leads the Chicago office as well as Burford's IP business.
You’ve been named to the IAM Strategy 300—a list recognizing the world’s leading IP strategists—for five consecutive years; this year, five additional members of Burford’s patent team were also named to the list. What makes Burford’s IP team the most respected in the legal finance industry?
I'm so proud of the patent team we've built at Burford. Everyone on it brings different experiences—while we’re all patent litigators, we’ve practiced in a range of technology areas and in both in-house and law firm positions, with unique skill sets as a result. We continuously leverage that collective perspective to develop, vet and manage our patent investments. This recognition by IAM is a testament both to our individual accomplishments and (more importantly) to the collaborative effort and success of our team.
Given all the changes in the patent law over recent years as well as the growing complexity and cost of patent litigation matters, the IP space needs legal finance now more than ever. Burford is well-positioned to meet this need: We have the most available capital at the lowest cost and an ability to take an extended view as investors in the litigation. When we’re competing for new business, patent holders and their counsel know that our highly experienced team is going to be in their corner for the long run.
Your career spans the business, legal and engineering arenas, with a particular focus on intellectual property. What interested you about moving to the legal finance industry?
I've been working in the technology world for more years than I care to admit, and have lived through the challenges of trying to get value out of these complex assets during the ups and downs of industry cycles. I’ve learned that self-financing or working with counsel on full contingency often aren’t the best options for these expensive, long-duration matters. To me, legal finance is the solution that the patent industry really needs at this point in time.
Legal finance brought together my career experiences in a way that allows me to really understand the challenges of the market and the players in it. We are often in conversation with patent owners who are incredibly sophisticated in their technology area but don’t know where to turn when efforts to commercialize or license their inventions haven’t succeeded. It’s exciting to be able to offer those patent owners—from individual inventors to universities to large companies—this powerful solution.
What do you foresee as the biggest development or sea-change facing patent litigators (or their clients) in the coming years?
Patent law changes rapidly, as does the related technology. Patent litigators and their clients have to weather those inevitable changes as they launch what could be four-, five-, six-year or longer litigation matters. Clients aren’t able or don’t want to bear all that risk. Litigators are adapting by becoming more entrepreneurial in how they pitch, staff and manage their patent cases. Having direct access to capital allows those firms—from boutiques to practice groups within big firms—to build a team and a diversified portfolio of cases that matches their risk appetite, knowing they’ll be able to see the cases through to resolution.
What is the most common question you are asked about legal finance, as it pertains to IP and patent law?
Even in patent law, which has had some version of legal finance for many years, people are curious: What makes a good case for legal finance? What makes a good investment? And how should we best present this opportunity, given its complexity? When people bring us a patent matter, we're looking for a lot of information—legal strategy, support for the infringement claims, validity analysis, damages analysis—which is a very significant undertaking to prepare. Naturally, clients and their law firms want to focus their resources on the matters that are ultimately going to be financeable.
As a former in-house lawyer, what were the main pressures and challenges you faced and how could legal finance have ameliorated those pressures?
I ran a company for many years that had significant patent litigation financed either through self-finance or contingency relationships—because legal finance didn't yet exist. I learned how stressful that can be on a company and its relationship with counsel. I was constantly doing a cost-benefit analysis of: Could we afford bringing a claim, given the multiple years it would likely take to play out? Were we choosing the right matters? Were we leaving money on the table? You have a limited window to get the value of your patents, and if you're budget-constrained as we were (and many companies are), it's a significant challenge. Legal finance solves those problems in an elegant way because it allows companies to optimize the value that they're able to obtain from their intellectual property because they've got a partner that can reduce costs and shoulder downside risk.
The World Intellectual Property Office reports that only 10 percent of patent applications in the US include a female inventor; similarly, the number of female patent law attorneys are dramatically lower than male practitioners. Why do you think this disparity exists and how can we solve the problem?
The source of the disparity can be traced to the small number of women entering STEM fields. We need to continue encouraging young women to go into science, because we’ll need more scientists if we’re to increase the number of women patent attorneys and patent inventors.
Within the IP space, Burford is working to solve the problem of women representation with The Equity Project. Women litigators are often looking for business development tools, and with legal finance in hand, they can pitch potential clients with a financial solution in place. As more women serve as first chairs on patent litigation matters, younger women who are rising through the ranks will be inspired to seek greater opportunity themselves. Legal finance will also help in-house women lawyers protect their companies’ rights and obtain more value. It's a very powerful business development tool both for in-house legal teams and law firms.
Anecdotally, as I attend conferences and industry events, I'm seeing more and more women in the audience and more and on the stage. It gives me hope that we'll eventually see more gender balance in the patent world.