How to choose the best patent attorney- a guide for inventors.
Seattle has a lively tech and patent market. For years, a couple of large law firms served most of the patent law needs of the city. Big law has always been expensive- when I was a young, in middle school, a friend’s father came in to my school to talk about a patent he owned. He described the patent application process, much of which was lost on a middle schooler, but one fact stuck with me all these decades later: $20,000. More specifically, $20,000 1987 dollars. For a patent on a spill-proof lid. It seemed like a lot at the time. It still seems like a lot, 30 years later. The patent was drafted and prosecuted by probably the largest Seattle patent law firm at the time.
A brief history of Seattle Patent Law
As we proceed into the information age, intellectual property and IP protection has become a substantially more important business asset. 20 years ago, many large law firms that primarily exist to service large corporate clients did not even offer patent services. Patent law was seen as a redheaded stepchild of real law, in which litigators battle.
As patent law became increasingly relevant to businesses, Big Law realized they were missing out on a potential profit center. Many of the large Seattle law firms bought patent law divisions wholesale, purchasing and trading patent practice areas from other firms. After all, you do not want to tell your biggest clients that they need to go elsewhere for their legal services. Big Law has to offer patent law now.
Big Business and Big Law
In 2015, US corporations filed 133,434 patent applications. In contrast, individual US inventors filed just over 1/10th that number- 13,643 applications. The statistics for foreign applicants are even more disparate, with corporations outnumbering individuals by almost 30 to 1.
With the vast bulk of the work flowing from large entities, most patent law practices have evolved to meet the needs of large businesses. This includes large numbers of associates to provide large bandwidth when necessary. Significant infrastructure within the law firm is necessary to handle the workload. Many practices within the law firms are designed to handle large numbers of associates and clients, with a resulting decrease in efficiency and increase in cost. Large firms are the opposite of agile- they have a massive amount of momentum. Outdated business practices and procedures can persist for decades just due to the difficulty of changing.
Additionally, large firms are compelled to maintain an imposing presence. Client expectation drives a huge portion of the overhead. I recently visited a marble palace on the 40th floor of a tower in downtown Seattle. Glass, sculpture, steel, and stone were truly impressive. This too is all factored into the legal fees. Large firms frequently charge $400/hour for associate work and much more for partners. The costs can be staggering.
With that all said, it is the cost of doing business. Large corporate clients have little alternative but to work with large law firms. It would be unworkable to farm out patent work to hundreds of small firms and solo practitioners. Yes, some big businesses, Boeing comes to mind, are able to manage a crowd-sourced type of patent procurement process, but they are in the minority. Small practices can charge significantly less, but the cost to the businesses would be higher, so the status quo persists.
Is Big Law better?
A final piece of the puzzle that must be addressed is whether the quality of the work justifies the price. Perhaps big law charges more because it does better work and has smarter lawyers. In my experience, this is not the case. I have worked with brilliant lawyers from small firms and large firms alike. Similarly, I have encountered bad advice and shoddy work from every type of firm as well. The firm size presents no assurance that the client is getting the best possible legal work.
In short, firm size is roughly congruent to the client size. Large clients are best served by large firms. Yes, the costs are high, but there is no realistic alternative. Legal fees are accounted for in operating budgets, and life goes on.
The Best Attorney for Inventors
There is only one real takeaway from all this: if an individual inventor needs a patent lawyer, and the inventor is at all cost sensitive, the inventor should be looking for a small firm or solo practitioner. As with any significant purchase, inventors need to do their due diligence and seek a lawyer with experience and expertise that matches their needs. If you have invented a gadget, you will probably be better served by someone with a mechanical engineering background. Likewise, a practice that focuses on patent applications and prosecution will probably offer a higher quality of work than a firm that practices general IP. Finding the right patent lawyer might take a bit of effort, but it is well worth the investment.