Leveraging Remote Work to Retain Top IP Talent in the Great Resignation
Intellectual property is one area in legal where remote work can often produce the best quality work.
Even three years into the pandemic, companies across industries continue to struggle to determine the most appropriate return-to-work policies. Law firms are no different in this respect. Many firms already have instituted strict policies mandating all practice groups to return to the office full time, while other firms have made the move to operate almost entirely remotely.
MIKI YAMAGUCHI IP Practice Manager, Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel, LLP
KRISTA HART Firm Administrator, Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel, LLP
Any such policy choices must, however, be weighed both against the reality of the Great Resignation and against the vital need to attract and retain top talent. At the same time, what needs to be considered is that for some practice areas, remote work can produce the best quality work.
Intellectual property (IP) law, we think, is one such practice area.
IP PRACTICES ARE DIFFERENT
A common misconception of decision makers in general practice firms is assuming that patent and trademark lawyers and support staff are just like any other practice group. The reality is that talented people who succeed in the IP field — and the work they do — are very different.
The number of communications per docket and the number of “docketable” events for IP matters — particularly for trademark and patent prosecution — far exceeds that of other practice areas. Plus, the potential risk of liability in getting anything wrong is considerable. To work in IP prosecution with any success, you must be detail oriented; willing to work hard; and learn to master a complex system of laws, regulations, customs and software. In short, you must attain and maintain a high level of consistent success.
While a lack of in-person communication and collaboration may pose problems for some practice areas, the opposite is true for IP teams. Indeed, the need to record every decision and its potential consequences lends itself well to emails with detailed instructions. In other words, IP professionals and support staff do not need to work together in the same location to produce high-quality, collaborative work.
What’s more, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) — the federal agency that IP practitioners and their support staff must deal with on a daily basis — now operates by means of a highly effective telework environment. According to USPTO’s 2019-2020 Telework Annual Report, over 90% of its eligible patent and trademark positions are teleworking, while its Patent and Trademark Trial and Appeal Boards were among the first tribunals in the nation to conduct virtual hearings. The upshot is that communications between IP personnel and the USPTO nowadays are conducted almost exclusively via the USPTO’s online portal, by email or by telephone.
Although many industries and practice areas have been facing a shortage of talented workers in recent months, there has always been a high demand and low supply of people who can do the demanding work related to IP law. And although like all legal practices, an IP practice must have finders, minders, grinders and binders, the kind of work involved in IP adds levels of complexity to each of those roles.
For example, in the case of support staff, IP paralegals and assistants typically need to have at least 10 years of experience before they can supervise, train or provide client liaison. These promotions are never guaranteed, regardless of the length of tenure. If an IP paralegal or assistant makes it to this level, they are highly sought after by any firm with an IP practice.
Yet, firms implementing rigid, one-size-fits-all return-to-work policies of how and when the work of law gets done are already seeing staff leave for other opportunities — talented staff that are very difficult to replace. Since qualified IP candidates consist of a rather small population, firms offering flexible work hours and locations are far more likely to successfully attract and retain top IP talent — particularly as the pool of talent such firms can tap into needs not be restricted to a single, narrow geographical area.
“Since qualified IP candidates consist of a rather small population, firms offering flexible work hours and locations are far more likely to successfully attract and retain top IP talent — particularly as the pool of talent such firms can tap into need not be restricted to a single, narrow geographical area.”
What about organizational efficiency, you ask? Our experience indicates that since our firm allowed support staff the flexibility to fully work remotely, the need for after-hour work arrangements has been practically eliminated. Our staff can now do their personal errands — like picking up their children from school — without having to leave the office for the day to catch trains on time or avoid traffic jams. As work-life balance is thus more easily achieved, many report significantly reduced levels of stress as well as a greater commitment to better quality work.
There may also be significant environmental advantages to remote work. According to the USPTO’s 2019-2020 Telework Annual Report, since the pandemic, their office’s 12,937 teleworkers working from home four to five days per week avoided driving 143,649,214 miles, collectively saving $12,042,592 in gas and thus reducing emissions by 75,416 tons. Of course, law firms do not have that many employees; however, because every little bit helps, knowledge of such statistics may make firms offering remote work more attractive to talented individuals who are environmentally sensitive and who are supportive of the United Nations’s call for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
REMOTE OPERATIONS ARE A DECIDING FACTOR
Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel, LLP, is different from other law firms in one important respect: Based on our special understanding of the intricacies of IP work, we were dedicated to a remote-work environment model even before the pandemic began. It’s allowed us to attract top talent in our field.
This is not to say that our remote-work model was implemented without any bumps. To stay in touch, we needed to train and encourage camera-on video calls through Teams and Zoom. We also have extensive training and always available help with software and procedures as alternatives to sitting beside peers within an in-person office environment.
We don’t deny that there is value to in-person interactions. Yet remote work does not mean that all interactions must be more impersonal. Confidences of a relatively private nature can often be exchanged during video or telephone conversations, which reinforces among our staff feelings of mutual empathy and consideration. Moreover, to keep the comradery, we hold both virtual and in-person social events such as lunches, happy hours, candle making and more. And although in-person get-togethers may be few and far between, what they lack in frequency is compensated by the exceptionally good spirits and esprit de corps they generate, precisely because they happen outside the numbing routines of the office space and times.
Our recommendation to other law firms looking to start or expand an IP practice would be to listen to your IP professionals and forgo the one-size-fits-all approach to remote work policies.
Flexibility is your friend!
Come together with your IP cohorts October 13–14 in Washington, D.C. for ALA’s Intellectual Property Conference for Legal Management Professionals. The event focuses entirely on what matters most to IP legal teams, such as Patent Center updates, including DOCX filings, and legislative updates with representatives from the USPTO.
Miki Yamaguchi leads the intellectual property support staff at Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel LLP. She has experience in many aspects of IP prosecution, including understanding and applying the rules of the USPTO and foreign IP offices, coordinating workload among IP support staff, updating and managing IP-related policies, and training support staff. She is a Certified Licensing Professional (CLP), with previous experience in technology transfers between Japan and the United States.
Krista Hart, SHRM-CP, is a professional legal administrator at Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel LLP and is the current president of the Philadelphia ALA Chapter. She works with all levels of people within the firm and is committed to making a difference in people’s lives through wellness; diversity, inclusion and equity; work/life balance; fair policy and procedure and empathy.