Zoë Butler – Interview
Zoë Butler – Interview

Who or what has inspired you in your career?

In addition to having worked on some amazing cases over the years, meeting world-leading scientists, inspirational clients, and lawyers from overseas, I have been in the fortunate position of being involved in founding and growing Powell Gilbert. I was one of five partners who set up the firm in 2007. Being involved in creating a firm with people you trust and admire professionally and personally has been an exceptionally rewarding experience.

My parents were also an inspiration. My mother was a partner in a law firm juggling a busy career with a family at a time during the 1970s and 80s when there were very few women in her position. My father, an artist, took a career change when I came along and worked from home—something that was very unusual at the time. They have both been amazing role-models.

What inspired you to study Natural Sciences and Law at university?

I started out reading Natural Sciences – my love of, and interest in, science started at school. I wasn’t at all career focused when I started my degree course, but I figured that studying natural sciences would give me a breadth of experience and keep my options open. Although I loved the course, I realised fairly quickly that I couldn’t see myself in a research role and became interested in the law, both as a subject in itself and as a career. I was lucky to be able to convert my degree into a Natural Sciences’ Law degree – the best of both worlds!

At that stage, were you already hoping to pursue a career in IP law? / What then led you to pursue a career in IP litigation?

During my degree course, my mother spotted in the legal section of The Times an article on an area of law she hadn’t hear of: “intellectual property law”. She realised that it might be something that would interest me, with the potential to allow me to combine my love of science with a career in the law. She was right! When I applied for vacation scheme placements for my holidays, I targeted firms with strong IP departments, and it went from there ….!

Which IP rights and technologies do you advise on?

My focus now is patents, but I don’t specialise in any particular area of technology. I currently advise on matters as diverse as biotech and pharmaceuticals, medical devices, LED technology, telecommunications, and robotics.

What is the most significant case you have been involved in during your career?

It depends on what’s meant by “significant”, not to give too much of a lawyer’s answer! In terms of global impact, I would say Unwired Planet v Huawei, a case concerning the enforcement of so-called standard essential patents (SEPs) – these are patents that have to be practiced in order for manufacturers to comply with international technology standards (in this case concerning mobile phone networks) which allow for the international interoperability of equipment. The case went to the UK’s highest appellate court, the Supreme Court, which issued a judgment in 2020 that was widely reported internationally and is still frequently cited in SEP cases worldwide as a leading and seminal judgment.

Which is the most memorable case you have worked on?

As a junior lawyer, I worked on a pharmaceutical case between Pharmacia and Merck concerning an anti-inflammatory drug. It was an important point in my career as I transitioned from a trainee to a qualified solicitor and the experience had a huge impact on my development as a lawyer. I worked with world-leading scientists, both within the client and as independent experts on the case. I travelled extensively for meetings, to coordinate and witness litigation experiments, to attend hearings in parallel foreign proceedings, and to assist with discovery. I learnt to submerge myself in the science, began to appreciate the truly international nature of IP litigation, and realised that the work could be both challenging and lots of fun! Most importantly, however, I worked with an amazing team of lawyers, a number of whom ended up being my co-founding partners at PG.

How do you handle the challenges and pressures that come with litigation?

I think it’s important to feel you work as part of a team – at PG I know my colleagues are there to share the load and pressures. And, of course, having an incredibly supportive and understanding family – I wouldn’t be here without them!

How do you maintain a work-life balance amidst the demands of your legal career?

Two weeks after Powell Gilbert launched in 2007, my first daughter arrived, and, during our office move to our current location in Fleet Street in 2010, my second daughter arrived! Juggling work with a family is challenging, particularly during busy periods at work such trials or periods of travelling abroad. I try to be disciplined about making time for my family. Luckily my husband is ruthless about planning and booking holidays, although he does, rightly, berate me when the laptop occasionally emerges!

Can you share a memorable experience that stands out from your time at Powell Gilbert?

As a founding partner of Powell Gilbert, I have lots of memories to choose from. Our firm-wide retreats, for example, are always amazing experiences. The annual PG parties are also wonderful, the highlight probably being the firm’s 10 th birthday party at The Science Museum in London. Watching everyone attempt the slides in the Wonderlab, decked out in all their party finery, was pretty memorable!

What do you think sets Powell Gilbert apart from other law firms?

I think that what truly marks out Powell Gilbert is its commitment to fostering a work environment where employees enjoy what they do. As a specialist firm, we can avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and formality, and we encourage everyone in the firm to contribute to how the firm is run. We really believe in teamwork, capitalising on the diverse set of skills and backgrounds of everyone, which has undoubtedly contributed to our world-class reputation for intellectual property and technology disputes.

Which innovation do you think deserves particular recognition?

Gosh – too many to chose from! Right now, having been without a dishwasher for 2 months, with a new one now installed (hurrah!), I’d go with that ……!

Tell us an intriguing fact about you.

In an alternative life, I might have been an art historian.