Leveling the IP Field for Minorities: Why A Game Driven by Creativity is Worth Playing

celina-diaz-12-5-07 Note: This article is from a guest contributor, Celina Diaz, an associate at Carstens & Cahoon. Ms. Diaz is a native Texan, born in Corpus Christi after her parents moved from Peru. Ms. Diaz majored in both Chemistry and Spanish Civilizations at the University of Texas at Austin, while taking pre-medical courses. She studied in Spain for a semester before going back to Austin to attend law school at UT. She is an example of an excellent minority patent attorney who overcame the odds to first, obtain a technical degree, and second, to attend a top tier law school. Ms. Diaz is a member of the 2008 Dallas Association of Young Lawyers Leadership Class, Women in IP law, Dallas Hispanic Bar Association, and the Dallas Chapter of Texas Exes.

 

Although minorities have grown to recognize the rewards of the legal profession, intellectual property law continues to be under-represented. Intellectual property (patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets) plays an important role in an increasingly diverse range of areas, from literature and the arts to genetic engineering. Yet there is a relatively small pool of diverse attorneys in the practice of intellectual property (IP) law.

At least in part, this is due to the technical qualifications (a degree in science or engineering) that one must have in order to sit for the patent bar exam. The small number of minorities with such a background that go into law school contributes to the small pool from which employers can diversify their firms or companies. Further, because of the variety of careers that the practice of law offers, many qualified potential minority candidates may never be exposed to the IP field. Finally, even as the number of minority candidates steadily rises, another obstacle minorities face is the limited number of mentors to which we can relate and vice versa. One of the ways to surmount all of these obstacles is to educate young minorities, law students, and attorneys about the great rewards and opportunities that a career in IP has to offer.

IP is a field dedicated to advancing technologies needed to address the problems and needs of society. Many corporations gain a competitive edge in the market by investing in the protection of IP. Without such protection, a business could lose millions or even billions of dollars in financial opportunities.

A career in IP allows an attorney to combine his or her technical knowledge and/or creative interests with the principles of law. In any one day, an IP attorney may register a copyright for the next best selling novel, counsel a client on the patentability of its most recent innovation, prevent a competitor from using a client’s trademark, and secure a client’s rights to the next big invention. An IP attorney can practice these tasks in any number of settings-whether government agency, law firm, corporation or any institution involved in research and development.

As companies and law firms increasingly conduct e-commerce and global business, the demand for acceptance and understanding of other perspectives, cultures, and languages has also increased. A diverse work environment will become increasingly important to help produce global thinking and solutions as well as foster interpersonal relationships with innovators and agents of other countries.

Severe competition already exists among employers and businesses for qualified minority IP attorneys. In further recognition of the importance of more diverse candidates, there are a number of organizations that encourage minorities to break through the barriers by offering scholarships, mentoring programs, and seminars for those who intend to practice IP law. Many organizations also offer chances for current minority attorneys in IP law to become more visible and hold leadership positions.

In today’s economy, it is essential that minorities seek out and embrace these opportunities. It is also important that we all encourage minorities to consider the economic and cultural impact they can have on the diversity of global innovation and that we all support those organizations and individuals that strive to help those brave (and savvy) enough to pave the way for future generations and businesses.

-Celina Diaz

Corporate Legal Departments Turn to Boutique Law Firms

Budgets for some corporate legal departments have been slashed this year in line with across the board cuts implemented as companies try to weather the downturn in the economy. This leaves corporate counsel with a smaller budget to accomplish the same legal work. In-house counsel at major companies are taking a hard look at outside counsel expenditures to determine if the legal work is being handled efficiently, and many have concluded that a different approach is needed.

One strategy that is becoming more popular is to hire boutique law firms that specialize in particular areas of the law. By wisely selecting the boutique firms, many in-house counsel have found that they can obtain the same, if not better, legal services from specialized boutiques than from large firms.

At the same time, because of the lower overhead expenses of smaller firms, substantially lower legal fees are incurred. According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association’s 2007 Report of the Economic Survey, the average billing rates for intellectual property attorneys at firms of greater than one hundred attorneys was more than 27% higher, on average, than at firms of less than twenty attorneys.

Moreover, the billable hour requirement is typically not emphasized in small firms the same way it is in larger firms. Attorneys in larger firms are under tremendous pressure to bill enough hours to meet billable hour requirements. As a result, this may lead to inefficiencies for the client because the attorney has less incentive to look for the most efficient way to accomplish a task.

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On the other hand, associates in smaller firms may not face this issue. The billable hour requirements are generally much lower and the emphasis is placed more on accomplishing the goals of the client.

Small firms tend to be more flexible than large firms in terms of being able to adapt to the client’s needs without the red tape of getting approval from multiple people. In most cases, if a client requests a change and the lawyer handling that matter is willing to agree to the change, the change can be accomplished immediately.

Personal service typically receives more attention at a smaller firm. The partner handling a matter will generally take a more active role in the work than at a larger firm where the partner managing the file may farm out most, if not all, of the work to paralegals and associates.

Two years ago Mike Dillon, the General Counsel of Sun Microsystems, predicted that the current law firm model of deriving profitability from growing the scale of the firm and raising hourly rates would soon be over. Indeed it appears that his prediction is coming true as a number of large law firms are faced with layoffs of associates and even partners in some cases.

Large firms do provide advantages and benefits that are not available at boutique firms. Probably the most significant advantage is having a large network of attorneys in different locations. This enables the firm to be used as a “one stop shop.” However, in-house counsel should consider whether the advantages of using a large firm are worth the price paid. In many cases, in-house counsel could save money for the company by doing some shopping and selecting a qualified boutique law firm.

Moreover, many smaller firms are subject to less turnover and are more stable than larger firms. This is particularly evident in today’s economy as larger law firms cut back on their personnel. Smaller firms are often more resilient, have less debt, and are able to adapt more readily to clients’ needs than larger firms.

Increasingly, corporate legal departments are turning to smaller firms. While smaller firms may not be the best choice in all circumstances, they certainly deserve a look to determine whether the use of boutique law firms makes economic sense.