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Ella Cheong: The single mother who became a pioneering property lawyer

Enjoying family and life has been the priority for this pioneering IP lawyer, writes Marie Incles

 

Ella Cheong is recognised as one of the best intellectual property (IP) lawyers in Asia, a pioneer who has set up offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Malaysia. However, success for Cheong is measured not in offices, but in terms of personal happiness.

"People often ask me where I get so much energy," she says. "It's because I enjoy every moment of my life. I think if you don't enjoy what you are doing any more, you should just quit. Immediately."

Cheong specialises in intellectual property rights (IPRs). She is a solicitor in Hong Kong, on the Roll of Honour of the Law Society of Hong Kong, qualified in Britain and Australia, and was admitted to the bar in Singapore. She was invited by the Singapore government to establish a firm in the city state that deals with all types of IPRs in Southeast Asia.

"IP excites me because it's so varied" she says. "Any business, no matter how small, has IP issues. From your name, domain name, copyright, drawings, even your computer programs - everything involves IP. It can be a whole range of cases or one case with many aspects."

Despite her enthusiasm for her profession, it was by default that she joined the legal profession after her father urged her to become a doctor. "I don't like blood or skeletons," she says. When his second suggestion of becoming a secretary also failed to spark an interest, she joined the legal firm her grandfather had worked for to learn "the long and hard way".

She trained in Hong Kong and Britain and, after qualifying as a junior lawyer, she delved into all kinds of cases. She worked on divorce cases, which she hated, and successfully defended a murder case that resulted in a flurry of calls from inmates wanting her to represent them. She also did insurance and immigration, which, she jokes, meant she could walk into any Chinese restaurant in London and know the people there to get a good meal.

She then started to receive a few IP cases, passed to her because no one else wanted them. Then came a patent infringement action in a pharmaceutical case that went on appeal all the way to the Privy Council. As a reward, her firm's partners sent her to an IP conference where she gained contacts and picked up more work. Eventually, she had no time for anything but IP.

"I love how international my work is," she says. "As a consumer, you go shopping and identify certain brands. I have even more fun knowing we worked on it and there were so many challenges trying to register it or go against infringements. Before Louis Vuitton started operations in Hong Kong, I did a lot of injunctions for them, so that I swept the whole market clean before they launched."

In 2004, Cheong decided it was time to open her own firm in Hong Kong and Beijing in addition to her practice in Singapore. It has quickly grown to a team of almost 50. Her greatest achievement, she says, is her family.

"My four kids. I've given all of them an education in Britain and they are all now having rewarding and successful lives for themselves." Cheong was widowed when her children were young and she brought them up as a single mother, despite her work schedule. She says she would always finish work punctually and go home to share dinner with her kids. She also credits live-in helpers with making overseas business trips easier.

"It's a lot easier for a woman now. With the economic times it's tougher, but only because of that - not gender," she says. "There are more female legal graduates than men, though the top layer of senior lawyer positions has a minority of women."

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