Beyond the bar: taking on technologists

  • Clients will expect technology solutions from law firms
  • Firms will need to dedicate resources to developing tech
  • Changing business models will affect the value of individual practitioners

There is a lot of buzz around legal tech, and investment is pouring into start-up technology companies which promise to rip up existing business models. However, many law firms are beginning to realise that they may be in the best position to develop new solutions, given their expertise and client contacts. Some of the world’s biggest firms are investing in incubators across all fields of law, including intellectual property.

Increasingly, these are based on some form of machine learning. Examples include Bird & Bird’s Pattern patent intelligence software (see case study) and Patently, a patent analytics/visualisation tool that came out of EIP. “If you have a team with a goal, you can be quite agile and flexible in a law firm,” says one practitioner with experience of developing such tools, adding that, although there are thousands of IT solutions out there for business, if you can find a gap in the market, then “just producing a solution for one client can be worth it”.

Getting it right means new services for clients and new revenue opportunities for the firm. But even if successful, these projects also raise many questions for firms. How are such services paid for and charged to clients? What impact do they have on the traditional legal work and firm structure? Is it okay to hire IT consultants and have them sit with the patent lawyers, being fully part of the team and not a support service? What are their career opportunities? “We won’t need as many junior lawyers. We will need more technologists. The traditional legal pyramid structure is on the chopping block,” comments one practitioner.

As such services develop, more questions will emerge for individual practitioners too. Until now, individual practitioners have had a high market value because of their experience and client contacts, and the market is quite liquid. “The patent attorney role hasn’t changed that much and drafting is still largely a solo effort. There’s an element of ‘Let me be the genius!’ But that process will be pulled apart and put back together,” says one attorney. With more value in technology solutions, will IP practitioners (prosecutors or litigators) be less attractive to a competitor given that much of their value is locked in a server and has a fancy brand name? Or, on the contrary, will lawyers who have worked on such services be able to transfer those skills and experiences to new firms and increase their value?

Finally, as technology services take off, firms will have to make decisions about how to monetise them. One option is simply to divest them, as Gevers did with the patent validation and Patent Cooperation Treaty provider Valipat in 2012, or Zacco did with IP management software Ipendo, which was sold to CPA Global in 2011. If firms decide to keep the technology in-house, do they license it to other firms or clients, and if so to what extent? Just as with other businesses, there will be difficult decisions to make about balancing maintaining market advantage on one hand and extracting maximum value from your investment on the other. “Do you embrace the open source model and share the platform with key clients?” asks one observer, adding: “Are law firms comfortable with that level of visibility?”

Case study: Bird & Bird’s pattern

It was while working on big arbitrations in the telecoms industry, potentially involving tens of thousands of patents, that Bird & Bird associate Matthew Noble realised, as he says, “the old way of doing things was no longer good enough”. The patent lawyers knew the law and the technology, but didn’t have all the data – and companies offering patent analytics could not offer enough detail or flexibility to stand up to interrogation in court.

Noble, a natural science graduate with an interest in software, worked with a friend to develop a blueprint and then hired an IT consultant to build a software product that did exactly what was needed. When this delivered good results, the tool was expanded, added to the firm’s package of client solutions and given a brand name, Pattern. It now boasts several full-time staff and is up for a FT Innovative Lawyers Award.

“Lawyers are not typically technologists,” says Noble. But, he adds, times are changing: “Today it would be so much easier to do. Across the legal industry, people have come round to the idea of innovation. When clients demand it, law firms have to do it.”

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