The Two-Culture Edge
Irene Y. Lee’s motto is ‘avoid drama’; opposing attorneys don’t always help
Published in 2022 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2022
Updated on January 13, 2023
If the case had made it to the courtroom, it might have been called Mouse v. Mau5.
On one side was the Disney Corporation, a fierce protector of its intellectual property; on the other, celebrity DJ Joel Zimmerman, better known as Deadmau5, who often appears with a huge, cartoonish mouse helmet—with Xs for eyes—covering his head.
For years the two sides had been nibbling at each other. Deadmau5 filed a trademark claim on his logo and image, and Disney opposed it, saying it too closely evoked Mickey Mouse. After Disney wouldn’t consider Deadmau5’s push for a coexistence agreement, he lobbed sharp tweets at them. With things getting heated, his lawyer brought in Irene Y. Lee, an intellectual property specialist at Russ August & Kabat Law in Los Angeles, to calm the waters and protect his look.
“That’s usually my role,” Lee says. “I get brought in when things are heated and there’s no good way to solve the problem. I’m a cleaner. It’s messy, so I come in and clean.”
“Here’s what I tell people about Irene,” adds Dina Lapolt, who represents Deadmau5 and other musical acts. “When you are in a dispute and she is facing an opponent at the table, they’re negotiating, it all moves along nicely, you get up from the table—everything seems great. Then all of a sudden you notice your legs are missing. That’s Irene: She’s nice, but she’s formidable.”
In the end, the two sides amicably resolved the dispute.
Though Lee spends as much time reminding clients why they shouldn’t get into a lawsuit as she does engaging the other side, she understands the dynamic. “I try to be very mindful whenever there is a lawsuit,” she says. “You’re harmed. And when you are harmed, the first thing you think is, ‘I need to clear my name and seek justice,’ and the only way they know how to do that is by seeking a lawsuit.” So first, she strives for a heart-to-heart with the client to drill down into what they hope to accomplish, while discerning what they might be willing to lose.
“There are times when you have no choice but to fight,” she says, “but we try to exhaust all the other alternatives first.” She has come to think of her work as something more encompassing than just achieving a win, or a string of them, in court. It’s portfolio-building. She works to come up with a business solution for them.
“As a younger attorney it was more of a me-against-the-world attitude,” says Lee. “But now I see there’s no reason why two groups of folks can’t be all right at the end. There’s no reason to be disrespectful in any way—even though sometimes [the opposing side] makes it easy.”
At the moment, she’s involved in discovery and is trying to make sense of an opposing position. “I’m trying to understand—they’re doing their job the best way they know, and most of the time if you show that, it is reciprocated. I’m getting older and trying to bring more civility to a process that’s not always so civil. I want that to be the next stage of my career.”
Lee has bridged differences from the start. Her mom was born in North Korea but left before the war began and became an English teacher in Seoul. “She went to a very prestigious college, very well-educated—both my dad and mom,” Lee says. Lee’s father was a South Korean businessman who set up a subsidiary for a Korean conglomerate in Los Angeles and New York City.
Born in Seoul, Lee lived in Los Angeles from ages 2 to 5, returned to Seoul for early education, then went back to LA for the rest of high school and college. “I think there was this notion in Korea that getting an education in the States, at least then, had advantages,” she says. “Many Korean parents thought it would be beneficial for their children, and it was for me—America opened my eyes in many ways.”
She says she feels only loosely attached to any one place these days. “I don’t know if I appreciated [growing up in two cultures]. But now that I’m well into my career, it does help me when I speak with folks on another continent. It makes me mindful of other cultures and languages.”
Lee has done IP work all over the world, including in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and once filed a trademark in North Korea via fax—the only way she was able to communicate with the lawyers there. In the field of intellectual property, where Lee must protect a client’s property across international lines, there’s something to be said for a global perspective, says Jorge Arciniega, who hired her out of law school to work at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in 2000. “One thing I appreciate in a lawyer is someone who sees the world more than the typical American does. There’s sometimes a tendency to be egocentric and parochial; there are those who think how things work everywhere is how it works in America. When a lawyer grows up in two cultures, it gives them an edge.”
Lee also works to maintain an open, neutral manner so clients feel comfortable. She set up her office to look as generic as possible. “I wanted a look meant for the people I represent—a spectrum of clients that goes from Fortune 500 companies, to still-struggling creative talent, to the folks hiring that talent,” she says. “I want anybody coming into my office to feel like they belong there.”
While aiming to be inclusive, she knows that others might see her more narrowly. In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes more than doubled in California, the state attorney general’s office reported. And while she says she has never felt singled out, she adds, “I know I can be profiled, but I’ve been very fortunate. … I see how I have been reaping the fruits of the work of those [activists] who had gone on before me.”
Lee earned a biochemistry degree at UCLA but didn’t know what to do for a career—until a productive conversation with a counselor. “They told me about a field called patent law, where folks with an engineering or science background can really flourish.” It was the middle of the dot-com boom and firms were stocking up on lawyers who knew the tech terrain.
To get some exposure in the field, she worked as an intern and a file clerk at several law firms, then as a crime victim coordinator at the Los Angeles attorney’s office. The work involved meeting with victims and witnesses, helping them to understand what their imminent encounter with the legal system was going to be like. “It is frequently overwhelming for everyday folks,” she says. “Just to testify and explain a crime, you may have to relive it, and that can be difficult.” She would talk to victims in their homes and hear their stories, and she would explain what they might experience going forward. “In a way, that was the best training for starting a law career.”
After graduating from Loyola Law School, she was hired by Squire Sanders, moved to McDermott Will & Emery, and in 2005 relocated to Russ August & Kabat. Around that time, a break came her way. She reconnected with an acquaintance she had known in junior high in Seoul, Hyekyung “Shelly” Hwang—though, Lee adds, “She was way too cool for me then!” Hwang had moved to West Hollywood and was developing an idea for a dessert product. It became the Pinkberry franchise.
Pinkberry launched in 2005, and in 2006 Lee handled a series of trademark infringement cases for Hwang. A decade later, she worked for three years on another matter for Hwang and learned what it can mean to have close proximity to a client. “You know the other parts of their lives,” she says. “One day you are thinking not just as an attorney but with an overall, holistic approach.”
It also helped her see each client as an individual. “Sometimes the problem is not a purely legal one,” she says. “It’s a judgment issue, or comes wrapped in family issues or personal issues. Avoid drama: that’s my motto. Because life brings drama.”
Since then, she has worked with clients as varied as Cardi B, Thor Industries, rapper 21 Savage and The Honest Company, which sells baby and beauty products and was cofounded by Jessica Alba. And like many in the IP field, Lee is spending an inordinate amount of time grasping the subtleties of blockchain, AI and NFTs. “I am reading white papers until two or three in the morning,” she says.
That’s when she’s not immersing herself in the world of Korean pop stars BTS, since she represents BT21, a set of characters inspired and created by the seven members of the globally popular boy band. “It sounds weird but I do study them,” she says with a laugh. “I go over their lyrics because I do have to go over some of the copyright issues.”
Even during off-hours, Lee has a hard time distancing herself from intellectual property. She describes a recent weekend road trip she took with her daughters, ages 5 and 8, a sister who works at Pixar, and a brother-in-law who works on The Mandalorian. (“He painted Baby Yoda!” Lee exclaims.) They went up the Pacific Coast, stopping at the Charles M. Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, and she couldn’t stop herself from pondering the copyright implications of Russian unauthorized distribution of Charlie Brown’s image. Then she spotted someone selling a bottle made by The Honest Company, and couldn’t help scrutinizing the packaging to see if they were using the trademark correctly.
“I think there’s no way for me to compartmentalize my life,” she says. “So I’m a mom in this moment and Irene that moment and an attorney some other moment. It’s all morphed together.”