Choosing to start a niche law firm is undeniably one of the riskiest, and rewarding, decisions an attorney can make. Finding and picking your special area may come naturally, or after years of experience in another practice. Identifying your own value to contribute to this field, to clients, and creating a plan of execution will likely come organically and easily when you find your niche—but it won’t be without unforeseen industry specifics that must be accounted for.
While the appropriate legal practice management program can automate many of the tasks involved in running a practice, practice area pluses and pain points need more of your attention when setting up a firm.
We’ve identified the benefits, obstacles, ethics and tools to help you figure out how to start a niche law firm, in this case, an Intellectual Property (IP) Practice.
1. Get a good return on your investment
In the today’s market starting your own IP law practice, when done correctly, is going to get you one of the best returns on investment. We live in a world of constant commercial, creative and scientific battles, with people wanting to cash in on their ideas, and the ideas of others.
The intellectual property of a company is now a legitimate and valuable business asset—as many companies are acquired for the worth of their IP portfolios alone. With a surge in start-up culture and a hunger to survive post-recession, patent and trademark filings are constantly on the rise, with statistics showing that trademark filings with USPTO grew by 10 percent in 2015—a staggering $2.7 billion dollars in IP fees.
That’s a lot of potential cases.
2. Identify your Scope of Practice
Boutique or full service? This will depend largely on two factors. Your abilities to practice and network, and your client focus and area. IP law is a concept with global, national, and increasingly regional elements—making it a unique fusion of localized and foreign competition.
Location and industry trends will influence your practice when starting up. Consider where you’re geographically poised for engaging in IP litigation or prosecution. If you’re thinking more broadly, are you going to focus on networking on a global scale to allow for international filings and disputes?
- Social media platforms such as LinkedIn and blogs are great marketing hubs both to advertise and network—but ensure you have a way of tracking return-on-investment on marketing efforts before splurging start-up savings.
- State and International IP associations, trade associations, and those more specific to your IP niche are great for networking, growing your practice and building your reputation in the IP community.
- Attend or feature at CLE accredited events and conferences.
- Specialize and refer on cases if not your specialty – the favor will be returned.
3. Find a Niche within a Niche—Ethically
Given the dynamic differences between Copyright, Trademark and Patent Law, and the requirements to ethically practice them, you should identify your IP area if specializing, and decide on the scope of services to provide. This is also relevant when seeking to work with or for international partners. Ethical obligations for IP lawyers are unique, as set out by the USPTO, but modeled on Rules of Professional Conduct and so not wholly unfamiliar to the ethical lawyer, but still require some mindfulness. IP specific provisions as ethical potholes and vital elements to keep in mind are as follows:
- Competence. For example, to be admitted the US Patent Bar, a background of technical or scientific training is required.
- Unauthorized Practice of Law. You cannot file trademarks before USPTO if not admitted to the bar in a US jurisdiction. Conversely, for international business, US attorneys cannot file a trademark for a client (hence the importance of your international network).
- Prohibitions against false statements and evidence. US trademark applications must be signed by a person who has first-hand knowledge of the facts stated in the application, such as full history of the use of a mark – your client. Attorneys may qualify, but may also become fact witness and disqualified from representing applicant if registration disputed.
- Missing Deadlines. Deadlines can come hard, fast and often when dealing with IP law – and missing a registration deadline can cost you your case, and exploit your client’s exclusive IP rights and ownership.
4. Prepare for IP Pitfalls—before they occur
- Identify your client’s IP history and needs from the beginning, and document them. Services such as Lexicata and Intake 123 automate your client intake and leverage electronic forms to collect information. This is extremely useful in detail orientated IP cases, and saves administrative time throughout your case.
- Record everything. A comprehensive docketing system is essential when balancing a caseload, calendar of deadlines, and niche-specific ethical requirements. Integrate your calendar within Clio and set up reminders to save administrative time and confusion by way of case specific apps such as DocketAlarm, CourtTrax, or curate your own system with Zapier.
- Implement a transparent, secure system of data and file sharing. Use of familiar, client-facing technology should be implemented from the start of a case and maintained throughout. Dropbox, Office365, NetDocuments and other client-friendly, cloud-based programs ensure that communication and records can be shared, accessed and maintained easily from your legal practice management platform.
- Delegate tasks by way of automation to ensure you provide the best service possible to your client and fulfill all professional and ethical duties. A large range of IP-specific integrations and tools currently exist and are expanding such as Traklight and Alt Legal, leaving you to focus on the technical practice of IP law, and law firm growth.