Karen Dickinson doesn’t have to open a book to experience science fiction.
She lives it — as general counsel for the Kansas City-based biometrics company ZOLOZ, and lead counsel for the Americas for its Chinese parent company, Ant Financial Services Group.
Dickinson has spent more than three decades as an attorney — in-house and in Big Law — and she has carved out a niche in intellectual property law. She said she’s stayed in that area because the work is always fresh.
“I just really liked it because it’s always changing,” she said. “Some of these guys, sometimes they talk about things [and] I just say, ‘I don’t have to read science fiction anymore because the things you guys talk about are crazy.’”
ZOLOZ, which was founded in 2012 under the name EyeVerify, owns the technology known as EyePrint ID, which Dickinson compared to facial-recognition software.
“EyePrint is just like a thumb print,” she said. “It’s just as unique.”
Dickinson said all of the parts of an individual’s eye — including the blood vessels in and around the whites of the eyes and irises — are unique to that person. She said the EyePrint ID technology is precise enough to tell the difference between identical twins or other multiple siblings, whereas facial-recognition software may fail.
Already, companies such as Wells Fargo are using the technology to confirm their customers’ identity online.
In 2016, Ant Financial Services Group, a financial-payments company affiliated with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, purchased EyeVerify. Ant operates Alipay, a popular Chinese app which allows users to pay for nearly anything from their cell phones.
A year later, EyeVerify rebranded as ZOLOZ and hired Dickinson, bringing her from Polsinelli in her native city of Phoenix, Arizona to Kansas City.
Before she went in-house with ZOLOZ, she worked with the company as outside counsel alongside her Polsinelli colleagues in Kansas City.
Her role now is “taking care of the legal issues that walk through the door” both for ZOLOZ and Ant, she said. Dickinson oversees teams of attorneys handling various legal issues, from litigation to IP and data privacy.
“I’m trying to be strategic — what are the issues coming up in some area of law?” she said. “For biometrics or for financial payments — what should we be looking at, what should we be learning?”
Dickinson said she is charged with ensuring the company is complying with laws and regulations, noting the company’s robust compliance group.
She said compliance always is important for companies, but it is especially critical in the current political and economic climate of U.S.-China relations.
“To work for a Chinese company right now is just reading the newspaper and keeping up with what’s going on,” she said.
On the cutting edge of tech
Dickinson said she got her start in IP law as a young lawyer at Lewis & Roca in Arizona.
She partnered there with an IP lawyer who favored litigation. She, on the other hand, preferred transactional law. He started training her in the area of IP law.
“It’s a really cool area, IP law, because you end up finding out about all sorts of new technologies,” she said. “So I took to it.”
She went on to work in-house for Honeywell for nearly a decade, taking on roles in the firm’s industrial control division, which made software and hardware systems for oil refineries, and in the company’s aerospace group, which made systems for commercial aviation.
From Honeywell, she went to Quarles & Brady in Phoenix, where she founded the firm’s China Law and Technology Law teams. She left that firm to join Polsinelli, where she also was a key player in establishing an international practice with a focus on China.
Dickinson’s specialty in IP law is technology agreements, or contracts. She said technology agreements sometimes can involve hardware and intellectual property issues.
“Hardware is like a chair. It’s an asset,” she said. “I can sell you the chair, and then you have the chair and I can’t sit in the chair.”
Technology agreements also can involve contracts that allow others to use a company’s software, patents or trademarks.
Dickinson explained that software is an intangible asset, and technology agreements allow companies to license their software to others and make money from that licensing.
‘A little extra oomph’
In an industry that is known to skew towards young men, Dickinson is an outlier as a 59-year-old woman.
Those who aim to be successful in tech must embrace their own wisdom and not be afraid to share it or be offended if someone else disagrees. She said having a deep well of curiosity also helps.
“I love science fiction, so for me technology is a great place because [nobody really cares] how old anybody is,” she said. “[They] just want to know, ‘What in the world are you doing?’”
Dickinson said being a lawyer also gives her “a little extra oomph” in working with others in different demographics.
“I think that for women in technology, it can be more difficult if they’re on the same level with the men that they’re working with. That’s true of many, many work types, including law,” she said. “But if you’re a lawyer and you’re around people who aren’t lawyers, people don’t really know what you do, so they’re a little intimidated.”
While she strives to be unintimidating, she said that mystery about their craft and expertise can be helpful to women lawyers who work in in-house roles.
“I’m curious. I’m not afraid to ask stupid questions, I like to learn, and people tend to respect me just because I’m a lawyer, regardless of anything else,” she said. “So it actually helped me a lot — that level of slight intimidation that people have [about lawyers].”
‘The deal is coming through the door’
Dickinson is passionate about mentorship and working to advance women in the legal field.
“I would never be where I am without people who’ve mentored me,” she said. “And I’ve seen people who haven’t gotten to where I am because they didn’t have good mentors.”
While some advancement can be chalked up to luck, it’s also based on strategy, she said.
“You should find somebody that you gel with who has the ability to figure out what’s going on within a company and would like to help you,” she said. “And you can help them, hopefully, too.”
For young women attorneys who are interested in the tech industry and IP law, she advises them to embrace their power. Early in her career, a mentor told her that an opportunity to work on a deal was coming, and it was up to her to be ready for it.
“What he said was, ‘The deal is coming through the door. It’s like a big elephant, it’s coming through the door,’” she said.
“If you’re a good lawyer and people talk to you, you get to shape it as it comes through the door so that it’s the best that it can be in terms of reducing risk and hopefully maximizing value,” she added. “If they’re not going to talk to you, you don’t even get that chance.”