July 01, 2019 July/August 2019

Technology Is Useful, Relationships Are Essential

Practice technology drives efficiency, but it’s the personal relationship of trust between lawyer and client that makes the team

Patricia E. Hong

Technical developments increase productivity and enable smaller law firms like mine to compete head-to-head with much larger firms in the same space. The technology provides tools and solutions for the practice of law and highlights the importance of the attorney-client relationship. Yet it is the relationship we have that brings them in the door and keeps them.

Tools of the Trade

The tools laid out for me at my first patent law firm in Washington, D.C., in 1988 included an IBM PC clone computer running on an Intel 8088 processor (sorry, I can’t help it, I’m a patent lawyer); a dot matrix printer; a 5.25-inch floppy disk tucked into each case file onto which all of the WordPerfect documents were saved; a telephone and a real Rolodex. A few steps from my desk were a fax machine that printed on rolls of shiny thermal paper and a telex machine that looked like a typewriter on steroids. In the 1980s the favored mode of instant communication was the fax machine. The faxes received were manually matched with a thick case file by a file room clerk. At the time, every law firm had these tools, and it was a given that a lawyer should be able to send a fax to Japan or Germany and get a response within 24 hours.

The tools of a lawyer and the delivery of legal work product have changed drastically in the last few decades. Just as it was a given to have a fax machine in 1988, in today’s legal operations lawyers need to be conversant with the technical tools of the trade. Adapting to the latest and greatest practice management systems is a necessity, not a choice.

Our documents are no longer on floppy disks (if this is unfamiliar, ask your parents) and not even stored on local file servers; they are hosted in the cloud. Documents exist mainly in electronic form. Paper is out. Communication has become instantaneous and more direct instead of through a mailroom. Even email seems a bit antiquated now.

Many companies have developed practice management platforms that can automatically populate deadlines and even create document templates needed for each deadline. Several of our larger corporate clients with sophisticated and voluminous patent prosecution dockets operate practice management database systems that act as the work product delivery portals. Emails take a back seat to direct uploading of documents into the client’s database. Even if emails are used, these systems automatically route emails into the pertinent matter files so that, with little human intervention, document are “filed away.” For some clients the documents are uploaded directly to their database, the database alerts the recipient and the recipient can access the document without human interaction.

Relationships Matter More Than Tools

While there are ever-evolving ways to deliver legal service to clients, one thing remains as true today as it has from the start of the profession: the importance of the relationship between the client and the lawyer. In my experience, even for large multinational corporate legal departments running the most sophisticated systems, it’s the relationship between the people that matters most. The client needs to know that the lawyer they hire is able to manage and work within the technical systems, but also that the lawyer will be engaging and provide reliable advice. A mentor once counseled me that the only thing a lawyer has to sell is good judgment.

Technological advances in the legal profession save us time but have not produced a slower pace just because tasks can be accomplished faster or automatically. Instead the innovations have led to increased work compression and pressure as more must be done by fewer people, whether in a firm or a company. The in-house lawyer needs to trust that the counsel they hire can give quick answers with actionable knowledge; they don’t want to be forced to read a long legal memorandum that gives choices but no answer.

Mutual trust between the client and the lawyer is crucial. The client trusts that the lawyer has a firm grasp of the legal issue, the risks and the recommended course of action. If the relationship is a long-standing one, the client can also trust that the lawyer’s advice contains institutional knowledge of how that company has addressed similar or related issues in the past. The lawyer trusts that the client understands all the usual qualifications of providing an opinion or recommendation in a short amount of time.

The importance of the relationship was driven home when one of my long-time clients with a high-volume workload purchased and installed a comprehensive practice management system with all the bells and whistles. The client gave each outside counsel law firm direct access to the system, and the firms were required to update the database directly and deliver work product to the database. The system was configured with a thorough set of gates that ensured the law firm successfully completed its tasks. My firm was responsible for thousands of matters in this system, and every day we passed through all of our gates. In terms of the technical tool, we were successful.

One evening an assistant counsel called me to let me know that his boss was unhappy about one of our projects. From a review of the database, the project appeared to be successfully completed. I thanked him for letting me know, and he informed me that he valued my firm’s work and that he did not want anything to negatively impact the good work we were doing. I immediately called his boss and discussed the project. We were able to resolve the concerns, reach a conclusion and put another solid building block into the relationship. No amount of digital data or impressive graphics could have alerted me to any dissatisfaction. I am grateful for the trust of the assistant counsel that motivated him to notify me and give me an opportunity to rectify the situation and forge stronger ties with the chief counsel.

Recently two large companies hired my firm for patent services. The hiring processes of the two companies were vastly different but had one thing in common.

Company A conducted a formal request-for-proposal process on a well-known proposal platform. The requirements were rigorous, and we spent long hours loading the platform with information and statistics about our practice. The proposal intake system no doubt analyzed each bidder’s input and likely employed the latest artificial intelligence tools to provide some measurements to the client. The platform also required all bidders to participate in a software-driven double-blind pricing competition. We were ultimately successful in the process, but we know that, in addition to the heavily analytical interface, the selection criteria included a component that considered professional references. We were fortunate to be able to present recommendations from leading voices in our practice area who had close and long-term professional relationships with the in-house counsel. With many request-for-proposal processes that show more similarity than difference, how would the client differentiate the choices? In this case I believe the relationships that we have forged through the years tipped the scales in our favor.

Company B hired us through a more common process. The company is innovative but in a nontraditional industry with regard to patent law. A new in-house counsel had been hired to improve the portfolio and ensure that innovation would be protected. She was given wide latitude to hire the law firms she needed to accomplish her goals. Naturally she turned to people she knew well and knew would be able to contribute quickly. Due to long-standing personal and professional relationships, the trust necessary for a productive client-attorney relationship was already in place. It is understandable that in-house counsel hire outside counsel they know or who come recommended by others they know. There is no substitute for word-of-mouth marketing in our industry.

While technology makes us more efficient, it’s the relationship between lawyer and client that continues to drive business. 

Patricia E. Hong

Patricia E. Hong is one of the founding members of Plumsea Law Group LLC, with offices in Bethesda, Maryland, and Portland, Oregon, practicing exclusively in patent prosecution, counseling and licensing. Patricia.Hong@plumsea.com