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Alan Tse jokes that he is one of the few Asian men you'll evermeet who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley without ever taking a math or science course. Yet Tse, whose family moved to San Francisco from Hong Kong when he was seven years old, has spent his entire legal career in the technology industry.
Although he says he's not a gadget guy, Tse was drawn to Silicon Valley during the 1990s by a culture of people passionate about their work and driven by the entrepreneurial spirit.He began his legal career doing IPO, M&A and venture capital work at Brobeck Phlegar & Harrison in Palo Alto during the 1990s. "Things were exploding" during that time, he says, so his on-the-job training was intense. In three years at the firm, Tse says he completed more transactions than many associates and partners do in a decade.
One of his Brobeck clients recruited him in 2000 to his first in-house job at telecommunications company CenterPoint Broadband Technologies. As general counsel, he helped grow the organization. From there, he moved to Ligos Corp., a software company, where again he worked as GC. In 2005, Tse moved to San Diego to work as GC at LG Electronics MobileComm U.S.A. Now one of the largest cell phone manufacturers in the U.S., LG MobileComm is a division of LG Electronics Worldwide, a South Korean company. Tse relishes the company's entrepreneurial vibe, not to mention the benefit of a snazzy new cell phone every few months.
Q: Why did you choose a career in law?
A: My parents escaped China during the Cultural Revolution--they were both going to med school at the time--and met in Hong Kong. My dad was a pharmaceutical rep and my mom was a nurse. They came to the U.S. so that my brother and I could have all the opportunities we wanted.
My dad became a janitor, and my mom was a receptionist and a medical assistant. They gave up good white collar jobs for blue collar jobs because this is the land of opportunity. In China we call it Gold Mountain. I believe the rule of law is why the U.S. is the land of opportunity. I wanted to study that, and really be a part of that system and give back.
Q: How has LG's legal department changed since 2005?
A: I was tasked with building a legal department--something that I was familiar with from my days at CenterPoint and Ligos. We have six people. When I started at LG it was just a paralegal and me.
Q: What is the biggest issue that your team works on?
A: The Broadcom v. Qualcomm litigation that's been in the news. We're the largest customer of Qualcomm worldwide and in the U.S. Where they're talking about injunctions against Qualcomm and prohibiting phones from importation into the U.S., they're mostly my phones. The challenge and the fun part of that is through it all, through the various injunctions and defeats and victories, we have not lost a single unit of sales in the U.S. I'm very proud of that accomplishment.
Q: What are the most significant changes the cell phone industry has seen since you began working at LG?
A:When I joined, the cell phone was a cell phone--the first camera phone had just come out. Today it's a mobile communications device. You e-mail on the device. I watched the Olympics on my phone. Your mobile phone is another computer. And that's in a short three-year time.
Q: What is the biggest legal issue facing the cell phone industry?
A:Dealing with patent rights. There are many features that go into each and every cell phone, and they touch on many different technologies. Right now we're dealing with lawsuits from [patent trolls] who claim our camera infringes on camera technology, the ability of our phone to browse the Web infringes on patents on Web browsing, etcetera, etcetera. So we're spending a lot of time, money and energy defending various lawsuits. This money, this energy, should be directed toward innovation.
Q: What other kind of legal work does your department handle?
A:Like most legal departments, we deal with anything and everything, from employee issues to people complaining that our phone is too loud. So one day it could be discussing a lease for an office in Austin, Texas, to meeting about terminating an employee for sexual harassment.
Q: There were rumors that LG's first touch phone, released last year, might have evoked a patent lawsuit from Apple.
A:We work hard to make sure our technology is independently developed and our innovations are protected. My job is to make sure that all that stuff is protected and that we're not violating anyone else's patent rights. I'm very comfortable with the hard work that our engineers and our R&D department do in developing our products. That was never really a concern.
Q: Tell me about how you founded the Asian American Legal Foundation.
A:In 1993, when I was still an undergrad, a friend and I sued the San Francisco School District to no longer allow the use of race in admissions to public schools. It's called Ho v. San Francisco Unified School District.
We won a 9th Circuit decision in 1998, and that whole system was taken apart. [The foundation] was created to help support the lawsuit. Also, we have written several amicus briefs to the Supreme Court on legal issues related to Ho.
Q: How do you incorporate diversity into your legal department?
A: LG understands that to be a great global company, they have to have a great global work force. We need to have the best talent from all throughout the world, regardless of race. My personal philosophy is to look for the best people for the job, regardless of race or gender.
Q: Do you have much interaction with your Korean parent company?
A:Our phones are manufactured by the parent company. Also, roughly half the phones are designed in Korea and half in the U.S. All our phones for the U.S. are unique to the U.S. We do not sell any of our phones anywhere else. That's a little different from some of our competitors, like Nokia, which sells world phones. That's part of our success. Our team here is very focused on the U.S. business.