28 Aug 2018
After working for a few years at a BigLaw intellectual property firm, you might start to wonder: Should you stick it out and try to make partner, or should you move on to a different working environment?
Three years ago, I left my position as a senior associate at a BigLaw IP firm and founded Henry Patent Law Firm. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I haven’t looked back.
People are always curious to know why I made the jump, and it’s always interesting to hear about someone’s big career move. So while my experiences certainly aren’t universal, I thought I’d share some of my reflections in hopes that it might help others think through a similar decision.
As a preface, I want to say that I had a great experience in BigLaw, and the firm where I worked for eight years was fantastic. I was lucky to be there, and many of the lawyers that trained me there are the finest lawyers I know. But we all reach a point where change is healthy, and the change that I needed was a fresh environment.
DERIVING MORE MEANING FROM MY WORK
One of the big reasons I left BigLaw was because I wanted to feel more connected to the results of my work — which meant that I wanted to work primarily with small to mid-sized tech companies.
As you’re probably well aware, the bulk of a BigLaw IP firm’s client base is made up of huge tech companies. In fact, some BigLaw firms won’t represent startups as a matter of policy, in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest with bigger clients.
But patent prosecution for large tech companies has become commoditized. Because these companies already have significant market share, they aren’t relying on patents to get their foot in the door, and so they’re focused on application volume and cost optimization. Basically, a patent application is viewed as a widget with a fixed cost. Attorneys are expected to churn out patent applications within a limited budget, regardless of the application’s importance or difficulty.
Some people thrive in that system, but I often felt like a cog in a machine. Personally, I enjoy working with tech companies where individual patent applications matter — because the founders of the company have put their blood, sweat, and tears into developing the technology, and because a strong patent portfolio is foundational to a growing tech company’s success.
I grew quite proficient at cranking out patent widgets for big tech companies, but my heart just wasn’t in that. But I loved the work I was doing for my tech startup clients, and they valued my unique skills and background in a way that made the work feel more meaningful.
BYPASSING UNNECESSARY BUREAUCRACY
Any big organization needs to have procedures and policies in place to support its basic functions, and that’s at once a blessing and a curse. Even though I was largely able to navigate the system without issues, I still found that BigLaw bureaucracy did create some inefficiencies. All told, it’s definitely liberating to be at a smaller firm where our team can make administrative decision quickly, without filling out endless forms and going through layers of approval for a simple expense.
BigLaw firms also have rigid requirements concerning billable hours and work efficiency. But because BigLaw hourly rates are high and their clients’ budgets are low (big tech companies use their high work volumes to negotiate lower budgets), I often had to make compromises between the hours I logged and the quality of my work. This was especially noticeable when I had to write challenging patent applications. Every BigLaw patent prosecutor knows what I’m talking about.
For this reason, my firm doesn’t penalize attorneys for spending the time required to produce high quality work product, and no one is blindly rewarded for billing lots of hours. Our employees only have a worked hours requirement, and that includes both billable and non-billable hours. Every small firm is different, but if you leave BigLaw, you’ll almost certainly find much less budget pressure.
PURSUING MORE CLIENT MANAGEMENT OPPORTUNITIES
At BigLaw firms, a partner will typically act as the client relationship manager. So if you’re working at a BigLaw firm, most attorneys won’t be doing the heavy lifting to manage client accounts until they make partner.
If you’re looking to move up to a higher level of client management more quickly, a smaller firm would offer you more opportunities. At Henry Patent Law Firm, I definitely try to give my team members more responsibilities in client management.
In line with that, you’d also enjoy more control over the type of work you get to do at a boutique firm. You’d likely have a direct relationship with the firm’s leadership, making it relatively easier for you to bring in new work related to your interests.
ENJOYING THE INTRINSIC SATISFACTION OF DOING GOOD WORK
The math is simple: If a firm’s billing rates are lower, the attorneys can put in more time to produce a better work product for a lower price. In other words, having a lower billing rate boosts an attorney’s ability to do excellent work.
By contrast, the policies and procedures at BigLaw firms are optimized to maximize profits for the firm’s partners. As I mentioned earlier, this structure requires you to make some kind of sacrifice between your billable hours and work quality.
Ultimately, I decided this was a compromise I didn’t want — or have — to make. I personally find it intrinsically enjoyable to do good work, even if that means making a lower profit. For this reason, the way I’ve set up Henry Patent Law Firm is optimized to allow people to do their best work. It’s important to me to be able to produce work that we all feel proud of.
WHO ELSE HAS MADE THE LEAP FROM BIGLAW TO BOUTIQUE?
Deciding the right next step for your career is a daunting and deeply personal decision. Any advice I could offer will be colored by my own experiences; nevertheless, I hope it’s useful for you to hear from someone who’s faced a similar decision before.
Looking for a different perspective? Guess what — the entire team at Henry Patent Law Firm made the switch from BigLaw firms and multinational corporations to our boutique firm! Check out our team page to learn more about who we are and how we got here.
Michael K. Henry, Ph.D.
Michael K. Henry, Ph.D., is a principal and the firm’s founding member. He specializes in creating comprehensive, growth-oriented IP strategies for early-stage tech companies.