After graduating with an electrical engineering degree in China, Kevin He emigrated to the United States to pursue his PhD at Norte Dame. He worked as a software engineer for a short period of time before the first dot-com bubble burst.
“That got me thinking about whether working as an engineer and scientist was going to be a rewarding career for myself,” He remembers. If career security were a concern, He would ultimately wind up in a position braced for more growth than any single job sector or title could ever possibly allow: bridging the gap between Chinese and US-based business. As chief legal officer at China-based GoerTek, a tier-one manufacturer of consumer electronic products, He is challenged with ever-evolving IP and business disputes for the company, navigating his legal team in the complexities of negotiating with US businesses, and how operating with the legal team upfront is the smartest way to operate globally.
He’s journey to GoerTek is a novel one. An ad in IEEE Spectrum for boutique firm Pennie & Edmonds would serve as the foundation for the rest of He’s career. “They were looking for people like me who had advanced technology degrees and could understand the technology behind patents,” He says.
Not having a law degree didn’t stop He nor the firm from offering him a position. The lawyer-to-be would prosecute patent applications during the day and attend Fordham’s night school law program. The firm’s dissolution led to He and several partners joining Morgan Lewis where He developed an interest in the Chinese market. He was able to land the firm’s first major Chinese IP representation, a USB flash memory device manufacturer named Netac Technology, who owns US patents.
He helped Netac litigate those patents against a major US competitor in the infamous east district of Texas. “The company was going public in China and they need good results of that litigation to show the strength of their patents, and we were able to reach a favorable settlement after two years of intensive litigation,” He says. “While I was proud of the outcome, I got the feeling that I may need a more flexible platform to continue to develop Chinese business.” In search of more flexibility and business-growth potential, He moved to Troutman Sanders.
“That role gave me the opportunity to not only continue to develop my IP practice but to expand to more general business practices with a focus on clients in China,” He says. The lawyer would wind up as legal advisor for GoerTek, which in 2013 was facing litigation from its larger competitor in the MEMS microphone industry, US-based Knowles. He says the case, which he oversaw, included two frontlines, the International Trade Commission (ITC) where the team was litigating the patents asserted by Knowles, as well as the US patent office where the team was working to have the asserted patents invalidated. “It was a big fight but was eventually settled in early 2015, and it cleared the biggest hurdle for GoerTek to pursue massive growth.” The outcome was enough for GoerTek to ask He to come aboard as CLO, which he did in 2016.
He says leading legal work at GoerTek has offered him the chance to counsel his own team in the art of dealing with Western (specifically US-based) negotiation styles. “Because I was educated in China and have also spent many years in the United States, I feel more proficient in working to bridge the gap between the two cultures,” He says. “This allows both parties to communicate and understand each other more effectively.”
“Because I was educated in China and have also spent many years in the United States, I feel more proficient in working to bridge the gap between the two cultures.”
When it comes to negotiating, He says generally, those in the US have a tendency to want to convey the appearance that their position is strong, tough, and unwilling to budge. “I think those that come from Eastern culture tend to want to appear humbler; even if they’re in a strong position, they’d rather be observant and less forceful,” He explains. “Because I’m on the Chinese side, I encourage my team not to be intimidated because they wouldn’t be coming to us if they didn’t need something.”
When it comes to matters that are more informal, He says he’s learned to counsel his team that those in the States value “my word is my bond” much more than those in Chinese business might. “Credibility is a big thing to US business,” He says. “I tell my people to do what they say they’re going to do whether it’s in writing or not.”
From a larger perspective, He says legal has been allowed to grow at the pace of business at GoerTek, enabling his team to get out ahead of problems early and head off potential problems. In those times where they’re forced to be more reactive, He relies on his legal team to reflect on how the situation could have been better and how legal can counsel the rest of the company to pursue a more positive outcome in the future.
“It’s very challenging because you’re dealing with something different every day, but as we continue to grow, I rely on my team to continue to educate themselves and bring that back to the team,” He says. “This is a dynamic work environment, so you learn to grow with the flow.”