Seattle Patent Law Firm
9 Lessons learned by Starting Alloy Patent Law
When starting a business, choose a moat to develop. Sometimes this takes a long-term plan or investment.
I have to start this article with a caveat. A large part of my success was years in the making, even before I knew about patent law as a possible career path. I studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate. As a junior, I listened to a talk on intellectual property law by a Seattle patent attorney who served as an adjunct at the law school I would later attend.
I learned that only candidates with a BS in a particular science or engineering field, such as engineering, math, physics, or the life sciences, were eligible to become USPTO Registered Patent Attorneys. I understood at the time that patent law was a specialized field. And that to get into patent law, the field would generally require planning beginning in undergrad.
I finished my engineering degree and began working as an engineer. I began to get exposure to the patent process and applications even during that phase of my career. When I decided I was ready to pursue patent law at Seattle University School of Law, I knew that I would be studying IP law specifically to start a Seattle patent law firm. I understood that if I passed that State Bar and the Patent Bar, I would have a niche as a patent attorney. I took any class that I thought would contribute to me starting a patent law firm. I entered business plan competitions and took as many MBA classes as allowed during law school. I took every single intellectual property law course that I could find a way to fit into my schedule, including Trademarks, Patents and Trade Secrets, Patent Prosecution Lab, Patent Licensing Lab, Copyright, Advanced Copyright, Arts Clinic, Property Law, Business Associations, and anything else I thought might be helpful in my specific practice.
All told, the path from starting my education to beginning my patent law practice was 15 years in the making. Those 15 years included a substantial investment of time and money. I felt like the end goal of opening my own patent law practice gave me a pretty definite thing to work. I believe there are a lot of other parallel routes to a successful business that takes similar personal investment.
The purpose of the investment of so much life energy, I believe, is to build what is known as an economic moat eventually. An economic moat is a thing that makes your business unique and prevents others from easily just doing what you are doing to copy your success. It is not easy to decide to open a patent law firm, so this is my moat.
If you are in real estate, perhaps your moat is a book of contacts you have built over decades. If you want to strike gold, a degree in geology and a few years wandering around Alaska seem in order. If you want to be the meanest litigator in town, then I can’t relate, and you’ll have to figure it out for yourself.
Patents serve to build a moat, and they, too, require an investment of time and money. However, all told, they’re a pretty good deal. Anything that helps you specialize, and find an underserved market, will create a moat. I suppose my final words on the topic would be to identify the moat that will give you the job you want and start working toward it.
Be prepared to take full responsibility for everything.
If you are the founding partner of your business, then the buck stops with you. This is one of those things that sounds like nothing but is actually a massive something. Sort of like how “keep your eye on the ball” sounds like just a saying to encourage someone but has a precise and essential meaning. Well, this is the same way. When you are the founding partner, nobody can bail you out or hand you the correct answer.
This can be very intimidating for many people. People are often insulated from making mistakes on the job. Knowing that you, and only you, are responsible for keeping all the plates spinning can take some getting used to.
You wear a lot of hats.
In the beginning, all I had was time, so I spent it trying to figure out marketing, operations, networking, web development, compliance, document library, and so forth. I literally did everything myself. My time was cheap, so it made sense for me to handle everything personally. This is also an essential phase of any startup where the owner becomes intimately familiar with how everything works.
I remember hearing during law school that a solo attorney spends about equal time on marketing, administration, and legal work. I have found this to be amazingly accurate. I was professionally trained for one of those roles. Luckily, nobody will sue you for doing a bad marketing job, so I was able to go out there and take some swings. You want to get the administration right, but it starts off easy, then builds on itself, and takes a while to become complex.
It can be very challenging to know that you attend to all of your very diverse responsibilities. Over time, I invested more and more heavily in instituting systems to ensure I got everything done. Again, this was a natural development over the years and is always a work in progress.
Be selective with your clients.
The 80/20 rule holds true with clients and effort. 20% of issues (clients in this case) sap 80% of your effort (this is a real phenomenon that occurs in a wide variety of circumstances, including education, personal interactions, landlord-tenant relationships, and so on). I have developed, over time, a selection process for my clients that allows me to work with cases that I enjoy.
I have encountered countless scams- clients and customers can scam you. I will gladly discuss copyright cases with potential clients, but I rarely offer my services for various reasons.
Choose the type of work that makes you happy. Shed as much of the rest as possible.
Delegate when it makes sense.
Eventually, for me, somewhere in my second year of practice, your time will completely fill up. It’s time to delegate. Delegation is a wonderful thing because it allows you to choose what you no longer want to work on directly. I now have help with scheduling, email management, bookkeeping, web development, marketing, and so forth.
Basic economics drives this one. As I mentioned earlier, I had nothing but time in the beginning, so my time was worth very little. As my time became more valuable, certain tasks became too expensive to do myself.
Delegation can take a lot of forms. From paying someone to prepare your taxes to hiring an online assistant to hiring a full-time employee, it’s all there to allow you to be more effective at the things you want to do.
This one might seem pretty obvious for a startup, but it’s still a pleasant surprise to see that I have done more business in every successive year of my firm (as of this writing). Growth has come from several channels. The main thing is that you learn and continue getting better at every part of your job. You will try many things for marketing before you find the things that work best. You will find your profit centers. You will have returning clients and referrals. It is natural for a business to experience a snowball effect as it moves through the growth cycle. You just continue getting better at everything, and everything gets easier because of it.
Business is cyclical.
Receiving a client’s payment is very different from receiving a paycheck from your boss. The downside is that you have very little ability to dictate when you get paid by a client or for how much. At least in patent law, where cases tend to be handled generally over a span of weeks to months, and then we wait for months or years (nature of dealing with the united states patent office). As such, my income varies pretty dramatically through the course of the year. I have noticed a few trends- times of the year when there tend to be spikes and lulls, but this only accounts for part of it. It’s a mostly sheer random chance that determines how busy we are. As I mentioned above, the general trend is growth. However, get ready for a rollercoaster ride if your business is anything like mine.
You can work from anywhere.
This is another one that might seem obvious to a lot of people. When I was an engineer, I had to be at the office. We built machines, and that was just something that you could not do from home. I can work from anywhere, and I would hazard that almost any transactional attorney, which is probably the majority of attorneys, can work from almost anywhere in the world.
I have colleagues and employees, but they work remotely as well. I recognize that a lot of people enjoy working in an office environment. I did not, and I’m delighted to eliminate my commute.
However, more than just eliminating the commute is the ability to pick up your laptop and work from anywhere you want. One of my personal goals for this decade is to move to Hawaii for a year, just because I love it there. I currently live in a pretty remote place where my internet access is all via cellular. Starlink now provides reliable high-speed access without even needing a cell tower nearby. If you were so inclined, you could realistically maintain a business from a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific.
I do have an office in Seattle, WA, but it was rarely used, even before COVID. Now, it is more or less expected that people are working from home.
You feel wins and losses more acutely.
There is something very gratifying about being paid for a job well done. When I was employed at ElectroImpact, my paycheck came in regardless of how much or how little stress I was under at any given time. It is very comforting to have a steady paycheck. Now that I am self-employed, I get paid when I complete a job successfully. Likewise, you feel losses. I’ll do a lot to avoid an L.
Specialize as much as you can.
As I mentioned above, I took all of the intellectual property law classes I could during undergrad because I knew I wanted to start an intellectual property law firm. However, once I began my practice, I quickly learned that different types of intellectual property law have very different flavors. Specifically, because I come from a technical background, patents really appealed to me.
My favorite professor at law school had a passion for music, and therefore copyright was the perfect practice area for him. I learned that patent law was the most fun and most profitable practice area for me. Therefore, as I accumulated clients and my business grew, I scaled back my offerings to do the specific types of law that help inventors get their ideas off the ground.
A quality website is a must.
Now that so many people work remotely, the web is where people learn and make purchasing decisions. Clients are now empowered to learn about and speak with many patent attorneys before deciding which patent lawyer they want to work with. A quality and educational website will help prospective clients understand what intellectual property law services they need and how to get them.
Furthermore, investing in SEO has been vital. Working to make your website as helpful to consumers as possible has the knock-on effect of causing your website to appear higher in search engine results. If you want to help clients, the clients have to find you.
SEO has always been a priority for my law practice. However, as my patent law practice has grown over the years, repeat clients and referrals have become a larger and larger portion of my caseload.
Just keep doing the next right thing.
Striking out on your own can be intimidating. Often, it may seem like all of one’s efforts go unrewarded. I know in my case, it took a while before all of the work I was doing started to translate into paying clients.
In the early days, I spend a huge amount of my time writing helpful articles and doing guerrilla marketing.
Intellectual property law firms are not all created equal.
Intellectual property law is an overarching term that is actually broken into distinct practice areas. An intellectual property law firm will have patent attorneys working in a patent application and prosecution, patent licensing, patent litigation, trademark attorneys working in the trademark application, trademark prosecution, trademark litigation, a similar suite of copyright lawyers, and a trade secrecy department. The practice areas can also be divided between intellectual property litigation and intellectual property prosecution.
Many large clients require a law firm that provides a full suite of legal services. However, most of my clients are working on their first or second patent application, and they qualify as micro-entities or small entities according to the USPTO. In this case, even a more specialty intellectual property law firm is typically geared toward serving enterprise clients.
However, many solo patent attorneys specialize in just the type of law that is relevant to small clients. By specializing in patent application and prosecution, we can better serve our clients.
Trust is key.
Hiring a patent attorney is much like hiring any other professional. You might not have the knowledge required to make a really informed decision about whether a patent attorney will do good work for you. Specifically, patent law is such a specialized field that comparing the quality of work between different patent lawyers might not even be possible. Therefore, I believe it’s incumbent on me to demonstrate to my prospective clients that I understand their case and do everything in my power to further their interests. This involves talking openly and specifically about the exact type of work I would do and the related costs. The purpose is to provide as much specific detail to my clients as I can about the whole patent process to make an informed decision. Of course, I will always counsel my clients on my recommendations about proceeding, but I find that buy-in is essential to the patent process.
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