Friday 19 August 2011

Advertising Bribery and Sponsorship

Hopefully, we can all recognise that a cash bribe passing under the table is unlawful. However, the publicity surrounding the recent implementation of the Bribery Act in England has called into question normal law firm marketing practices and behaviours. No longer is it possible for an in-house lawyer to go out to lunch without some quip being made as to whether such behaviour could be a bribe. 

Since the media encourages a very judgemental attitude to those who transgress in any way - whether they be MPs in receipt of expenses, newspaper publishers or looters, it's not a good idea to find yourself on the wrong side of the law. However,creating such an environment of angst does make life difficult for those who promote their businesses using sponsorship. Once upon a time, there was some credibility that if you were speaking at a conference you were a legal expert. Now that your contribution is clearly marked as that of a sponsor, its value is much degraded. Have a look at the programme for the Legal Week Corporate Counsel Conference.

Today I received a query from CIPA - the professional body of UK patent attorneys - who are making a risk assessment exercise concerning the activities of the Institute in order to establish a Bribery Act policy. Apart from a few paid staff, all work done for the benefit of the Institute is by volunteer members. The retired ones maybe do it for love because they like to keep in touch, but those who could be earning substantial hourly rates, justify their involvement to their partners by the kudos they receive as a member of Council or as a speaker at a CIPA conference.

Equally, I was rather surprised that ITMA circulated all its members with the suggestion that they should volunteer to speak at the London evening meetings. We thought they invited the best qualified speakers, but perhaps they felt they had to be more open. Even so, if you volunteer, you will be branded a self publicist rather than an altruist - most people would prefer to be invitedas a result of peer-reviewed recommendation and it seems now that invitations are at risk of being considered bribes. Those on the outside are always afraid of a closed shop, especially if they cannot see the door. Just look at the comments on our last post on the supply of intellectual property advice in Northern Ireland.

Maybe the Bribery Act will have the effect of introducing greater transparency into the selection and payment of speakers at allegedly educational events.  Nevertheless, we may find that the absence of good wine and dining incentives, because they might be considered as a bribe, will threaten the whole business model under which professional bodies like CIPA and ITMA operate.  Do you think that's a good thing?

1 comment:

  1. I'm guessing that most CIPA volunteers are partners or sole practitioners who do not have to request permission to spend time on CIPA matters. Others may be performing CIPA duties solely in their own time. Direct economic return may not be obvious enough for more lowly individuals to persuade their manager to allow them to participate if it affects their work.

    That said, there is the kudos associated with being able to market oneself as a more learned, esteemed attorney. After all, an overseas client can rest assured that a CIPA committee member is a trustworthy and dependable representative.

    The problem with CIPA is the blurring of the representative function (of its members) with that of lobbying and IP promotion in the UK and abroad. Overseas trips paid for by CIPA members are mainly of benefit to the 'esteemed' members who attend such trips. Such benefits may not be bribery as such, but they are part of the old-boys club attitude maintains the status quo and hinders modernisation and improvement of the professions. The end result is the same.