Yes Virginia, there is IP practice outside of London: a special interview

To an outsider, London seems to play an unusually oversized role in all that takes place within the UK. Regarding IP, one tend to think only of greater London. (I recall only once being in an office on an IP matter outside of the London conurbation.) I can already hear it: "This Kat is guilty as charged with provincialism in reverse." 

Against that backdrop, this Kat sought to understand better what IP practice looks like outside of London. To do so, he has turned to Dr. Anna Molony, of Ingenium IP, in Warwick, and Richard Kempner, of Kempner & Partners, in Leeds. Their responses to the following questions are set out below.

Question 1: One is accustomed to persons migrating to London from other parts of England. This was not your respective migration patterns. How did you land in Warwick, and Leeds, respectively?

Anna: When I was looking for a trainee position I consciously excluded London firms – I just didn’t want to live there. So I started at a private practice in Derby, moved in-house to an early stage tech firm in Birmingham, and then opened an office for my first firm in Leamington Spa. Warwickshire is a great place to live and work, and I can get most places pretty easily from here, so when I set up my second firm,  I didn’t see any need to move!

Richard: I “migrated” from London to Leeds in 1990. I was fed up with living in London, and sought a city to practice intellectual property law in that would have a decent number of major clients within its vicinity and that being the case, an appropriate law firm to practice from. At the time, I felt that could include the cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and possibly Bristol – funnily enough not Oxford or Cambridge, which whilst famous in their own right as leading university towns, were not then and still are not now really well-known for having very many substantial law firms or very major clients in their vicinities. At the time, Leeds seemed the pre-eminent city outside London for major clients and law firms, and that is where I went, joining a general practice firm and later setting up a niche IP law firm.

Question 2: When talking about professional competencies, reference is often made to the advantage of clusters, especially urban mega-clusters. By your choice of professional location, this would not appear to be the case for the two of you. How would respond to the arguments in favor of such mega-clusters?

Anna: I believe clusters can be advantageous for technology businesses where collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas helps drive innovation, and there is plenty of research that supports this, but patent attorneys aren't really known for collaborating with each other! We can get all the professional development we need from CIPA webinars and the Annual Congress, which provides plenty of opportunity to chat and compare notes with other attorneys.

Richard: The reality nowadays is that it doesn’t matter where you are "so long as you can attract the best people, have fantastic clients, provide amazing service and can do all that at a price that people are willing to pay that is sufficient for the lifestyle that you wish to live"! I’m only half joking. Leeds is a bustling city and our offices are five minutes from the station with car parking really close. Getting our service offering right is, at least for us, the easy part. The challenges then are to persuade would-be clients that we don’t need to be on their doorstep to provide them with excellent service at a price that makes sense so that one don’t need to be in London to do quality work.

Richard responding to Anna: You’re right Anna. Whilst clients may derive advantages from ‘clustering’, attorney firms and law firms really don’t!

Anna responding to Richard: Maybe it’s because I deal with technology companies, but most of my clients don’t need me to be on their doorstep. Our communication generally takes place by phone/skype or email, even when I’m discussing complex technology with them to prepare a new patent application. I find it’s my older contacts who like to see me face-to-face most often; the younger ones are quite happy to chat on the phone or by email.

Question 3: What are the biggest advantages and biggest disadvantages of not practicing in London?

Anna: Not having a ridiculous commute! I only say that half-jokingly – spending hours travelling to and from work just isn’t good for you, or your family life. From a client perspective, the biggest advantage is that we have much lower overhead costs, so we are able charge our clients significantly lower fees for what we believe is equally high-quality work.

Richard: The biggest advantage of practising outside London is the substantially lower overheads that we have, whether that be rent, rates, service charges, or even, salaries. But it goes beyond that. Houses here would cost maybe five times more in London, which also means, of course, that incomes need not approach those of London. This affects our business model; we need not provide the level of partner compensation that appears to apply to any successful London law firm. Thus we are able to charge our clients what we consider to be a fair price for our work.

I think there could be said to be two disadvantages in not being in London. First, there remains within “old school” thinking a view that if you are not in London you might not be at the top of your game. Well, we would say, wouldn’t we, that that self-evidently is not the case. Secondly, because we seek out national and international clients, we need to be more ready, willing and able to travel than perhaps our London competitors do. They can convince themselves that they don’t need to do so either because there is sufficient business in London or because their target clients are more willing to come to see them at their own offices, as opposed to coming to Leeds.

Richard responding to Anna: Richard: When I’m in London, I often stay down and commute into the City on the Northern line. I know from friends who do it daily that they can ‘blot’ the commute time and discomfort from their minds, as if it never happened. A very clever and necessary trick for them, which I have thankfully not needed to perfect.

Anna responding to Richard: It seems to me that this “old school” thinking is perpetuated by London firms themselves, it’s in their interest after all. And my experience of dealing with both London and non-London based patent attorneys is that it is simply not true these days. That said, I used to have a London address just to give to overseas attorneys, many of whom have no idea which country Warwick is in but do know where London is!

Question 4: What would IP readers find most surprising about your respective practices?

Anna: I’m a small boutique firm, but my clients include multinational companies that any London firm would be over the moon to have. And I don’t spend all my time doing IP work - I’m also a charity Trustee and a non-exec director on the board of Bowls England.

Richard: We started nine years ago with no clients and now have around 450 including multinational companies with a household name- the kind of client that any London or international law firm would be delighted to be acting for.

Richard responding to Anna: Richard: Not commuting gives you so much additional time: time, as you say Anna, to do charity and non-exec work.

Question 5: Is it possible to talk about distinctive aspects in maintaining a patent prosecution practice, or an IP law office boutique, respectively, in a location removed from London?

Anna: Since the UK IP Office moved to Newport and so much prosecution work is done before the EPO, there’s no advantage to having a physical presence in London. I do the same work as I would if I was in London, I just do it in a much more pleasant, low cost environment.

Richard: Speaking for the IP law boutiques, and us specifically, we don’t have a big atrium. Actually we don’t have an atrium. We don’t have an HR department. Nor a marketing department. We’ve decided not to employ anyone who does not provide our clients, directly or indirectly, with any benefit. ‘Boutique’ means not just specialist but also small, it’s our business and we feel it personally. We know that we are only as good as our last game.

Anna responding to Richard: I completely identify with everything that Richard is saying here. Small is good; it means you can provide great service with a personal touch.

Question 6: How do you persuade clients who might traditionally head to London for IP advice to come to Warwick and Leeds, respectively?

Anna: My clients mostly choose me for my specialist technical knowledge, not my location - what they really care about is whether I truly understand their inventions and can protect them properly. If I do have to make the argument though, it’s this: do you want someone who’s an expert in your technical field and manages their work load so they have enough headspace to really get into your technology? Or do you want to pay over the odds for someone who’s “done this sort of stuff before” and has a huge billing target?

Richard: It is actually a fairly straightforward conversation. We offer expertise and proven track record with a price offering that our London competitors struggle to match. So, if a would-be client wants to pay fees that are “reassuringly expensive”, or requires that its IP lawyers must be in London, we are not the right choice for that client. But if the client wants expertise and a proven track record at a price that (we say) actually makes sense, we are a good choice.

Question 7: Do you face any unique challenges in recruiting professional staff or attracting other resources for your office?

Anna: Not any more, I’m the only attorney! But in my previous firm, while there were plenty of good secretaries, paralegals and potential trainees available, motivated, qualified patent attorneys were thinner on the ground. Using IP recruitment consultants was key to finding staff.

Richard: The pool of talented lawyers, including IP lawyers, is self-evidently greater in London than it is in any other city in the UK, and no matter how high (we would like to think) is the quality of our work and our clients, we cannot persuade those who wish to live in London to move out. Our challenge is to try and catch talented lawyers nationally who want to move out of London, and hope that the combination of all the things that we believe that we can offer can persuade them to join us. Still, whilst we are inundated with applicants at the more junior level, it is harder, based outside London, to recruit senior talent.

Interview by Neil Wilkof

Yes Virginia, there is IP practice outside of London: a special interview Yes Virginia, there is IP practice outside of London: a special interview Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, June 01, 2018 Rating: 5

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Nice to see my old friend Richard in such fine form - we worked together at a certain London firm many years ago before he moved to Leeds. And pleased that Anna feels that she can get all the professional development she needs from CIPA webinars and the Annual Congress. Glad to know that we are delivering the goods Anna!

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