Monday 28 May 2012

Is facilitating SME access to the legal profession enough to give them the advice they need?

One of the striking, albeit predictable, issues identified in the independent review on intellectual property and growth, carried out by Professor Ian Hargreaves, was the difficulty faced by SMEs in obtaining the advice they need to make effective use of their IP.

When meeting small technology firms at TechHub, Hargreaves found that nine out of ten were interested in “an integrated source of advice which combines commercial and technical insight with legal expertise”.

A key problem Hargreaves notes in his report, along with the complex array of services on offer, and difficulties in determining which are reliable or trustworthy, is that:

At present, long established IP legal advisers (for example, patent attorneys) seldom offer expertise on the commercial aspects of IP.  Conversely, IP advisors with a business focus lack the detailed knowledge to assist SMEs in obtaining [intellectual property rights].

Based on this report the IPO is searching for solutions to facilitate access to this expertise, which can be crucial to the success of new businesses.  Surely, in light of the raft of other changes currently reforming the legal landscape like the introduction of Alternative Business Structures, and given the height of demand illustrated by Hargreaves, legal professionals will take the hint and respond to this need. 

I discuss the problems with the recommendations in more detail in my blog post Hargreaves: Why Internet and Social Media are Key Reasons SMEs Lack Access To The Right Type of Advice.

One issue is how the IPO might use solicitors to educate the public about IP.  Most people will have reason to visit a lawyer’s office at some point, and it could be a better use of the IPO’s time and resources to take advantage of the expertise, connections and sheer manpower that already exists in the legal sector, rather than investing further in developing their own offerings that have so far failed to address the problem.

My own view is that the report conspicuously failed to highlight the need to educate both lawyers and the public in IT.  The world has changed a great deal for businesses recently, and the web is now the main platform SMEs will use to launch new services.  Unfortunately, the lack of IT expertise in the profession means legal advice often fails to adequately account for this.  The report does note a number of positive steps that could improve access to IP advice, such as buddying up law firms with relevant expertise and smaller firms that lack it, or accrediting lower cost providers of integrated IP legal and commercial advice.  However, facilitating access to the legal profession does not address some of the core problems – as the next generation of lawyers come through the ranks, SMEs should be entitled to expect them to understand IT, the web, Social Media and other topics that influence modern business decisions.  I do wonder why such training is not a mandatory requirement of LPC students and trainees, and why the IPO is not spending public money more usefully in educating the professions, rather than trying to find low cost providers of IP/commercial services. 

Thursday 17 May 2012

In for the long haul? Can you compete with the One-Stob-Shop:

One of the most surprising and unexpected news items of the year, if not the century, is the decision of road hauliers and transport company Eddie Stobart to diversify into the field of legal advice. The Stobart Barristers website makes a refreshing change from those of traditional chambers, and presumably the brand image of the underlying business (clean lorries, niftily driven with a view to reaching the desired destination in the minimum of time and at a competitive price) is expected to boost its legal profile too.

This curious development has repercussions for readers of this blog who struggle to earn their humble crust through the practice of intellectual property law: Stobart Barristers is offering legal services in the field of copyright law. At this rate, small and solo IP practitioners may be left with nothing but small cases (below).

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Client science

Roaming around the Exhibit Hall at this year's International Trademark Association (INTA) Meeting this year in Washington DC, I came across a neat little paperback published by Oxford University Press out of its New York office and obviously aimed at the US market -- but which looked as though it has plenty to offer non-US readers too, particularly for those with small practice in which the personal side of counselling and client relationships is not merely a bit of expensive veneer but the basis on which a practitioner-client relationship survives or withers.

The book is called Client Science: Advice for Lawyers on Counseling Clients through Bad News and Other Legal Realities, and it's by Marjorie Corman Aaron, Professor of Practice at the University of Cincinnati. According to the book's web page,
"Lawyers know that client counseling can be the most challenging part of legal practice. Clients question and often resist the complexities and uncertainties inherent in law and legal process. Honest advice from the lawyer can make a client doubt his or her allegiance and zeal. Client backlash may be directed at the lawyer who communicates bad news. Thus, the lawyer may feel torn between the obligation to clearly inform a client about weaknesses in legal positions and fear of damaging the client relationship. Too often, the lawyer struggles to counsel a particularly difficult client, but to no avail. 
Client Science is written to provide insight and advice to lawyers on how to more effectively communicate with their clients with regard to legal realities and difficult decisions. It will help lawyers with the always-difficult task of delivering "bad news," which will result in better-informed and thus more satisfied clients. The book explains applicable social science research and insights and translates them into plain language relevant to legal practice and client counseling. Marjorie Corman Aaron offers specific suggestions related to a lawyer's ordering, timing, phrasing, and type of explanation, as well as style adjustments for the lawyer's voice, gesture, and body position, all to impact client counseling and to improve the lawyer-client relationship".
All this stuff about gesture and body language sounds good. If it works with clients, one might even try it on one's colleagues ...