What makes a good patent attorney?
This is a question that has been on my mind for a while. The answer I normally get is: “well, you just kind of know don’t you?” This isn’t very useful for anyone. The alternative is: “it depends”. Again, not very useful. Can we think of any way to at least try to answer the question? (Even if the answer is not perfect.)
The question begets another: “how do we measure success?”
- the broadest, strongest patent (or patent portfolio) obtained at the lowest cost;
- a patent or patent portfolio that covers their current and future products, and that reduces their UK tax bill; and/or
- a patent or patent portfolio that gets the company what it asks for in negotiations with third parties.
For an in-house attorney or patent department this may be:
- meeting annual metrics, including coming in on budget;
- a good reputation with the board of directors or the C-suite; and/or
- no surprises.
For an inventor this may be:
- minimum distruption to daily work;
- respect from peers in the technology field; and/or
- recognition (monetary or otherwise) for their hard work.
For a patent firm this may be:
- a large profit;
- high rankings in established legal publications; and/or
- a good reputation with other patent firms and prospective or current clients.
For a partner of a patent firm this may be:
- a large share of the profit divided by time spent in the office; and/or
- a low blood pressure reading.
As we can see, metrics of success may vary between stakeholders. However, there do appear to be semi-universal themes:
- Low cost (good for a company, possibly bad for patent attorneys);
- Minimal mistakes (good for everyone);
- Timely actions (good for everyone but sometimes hard for everyone); and
- High legal success rate (good for everyone).
High legal success rate (4) may include high numbers of:
- Case grants (with the caveat that the claims need to be of a good breadth);
- Cases upheld on opposition (if defending);
- Cases revoked on opposition (if opposing);
- Oral hearings won; and
- Court cases won.
I will investigate further how these can be measured in practice in a future post. I add the caveat that this is not an exhaustive list, however, rather than do nothing out of the fear of missing something, I feel it is better to do something, in full knowledge I have missed things but that these can be added on iteration.
Cost is interesting, because we see patent firms directly opposed to their clients. Their clients (i.e. companies) typically wish to minimise costs and patent firms wish to maximise profits, but patent firm profits are derived from client costs. For patent firms (as with normal companies), a client with a high profit margin is both an asset and a risk; the risk being that a patent firm of a similar caliber (e.g. with approximately equal metrics for 2-4 above) could pitch for work with a reduced (but still reasonable) profit margin. In real life there are barriers to switching firms, including the collective knowledge of the company, its products and portfolio, and social relationships and knowledge. However, everything has a price; if costs are too high and competing firms price this sunk knowledge into their charging, it is hard to reason against switching.
There is a flip side for patent firms. If they can maximise 2-4, they can rationalise higher charges; companies have a choice if they want to pay more for a firm that performs better.
On cost there is also a third option. If patent firms have comparative values for 2-4, and they wish to maintain a given profit margin, they can reduce costs through efficiencies. For most patent firms, costs are proportional to patent attorney time, reduce the time it takes to do a job and costs reduce. The question is then: how to reduce time spent on a matter while maintaining high quality, timeliness and success? This is where intelligence, automation and strategy can reap rewards.
In-house, the low cost aim still applies, wherein for a department cost may be measured in the number of patent attorneys that are needed or outside-counsel spend, as compared to a defined budget.
In private practice, and especially in the US, we often see an inverse of this measurement: a “good” patent attorney (from a patent firm perspective) is someone who maximises hourly billings, minimises write-downs, while anecdotally maintaining an adequate level for 2-4. One problem is maximising hourly billings often leads to compromise on at least 2 and 3; large volumes of work, long hours, and high stress are often not conducive to quality work. This is why I have an issue with hourly billing. A base line is that a profit per se is required, otherwise the business would not be successful. Further, a base line of profit can be set, e.g. allowing for a partner salary of X-times the most junior rate, an investment level of Y%, a bonus pool for extra work performed etc.. However, beyond that, the level of profit is a factor to maximise, subject to constraints, i.e. 1-4 above, where the constraints take priority. The best solution is to align profit with the constraints, such that maximising 1-4 maximises profit. That way everyone benefits. How we can do this will be the subject of a future post.
So, let’s return to our original question: what makes a good patent attorney?
From the above, we see it is a patent attorney that at least makes minimal mistakes, operates in a timely manner, has a high legal success rate and provides this at a low cost. In private practice, it is also a patent attorney that aligns profit with these measures.