Intellectual property takes many forms, including copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. When individuals or businesses need to protect their intellectual property (IP), through steps such as registration and litigation, they often need the assistance of a trained attorney.
Finding a lawyer is easy, but finding the right lawyer can be more difficult. Many people who have never hired an attorney before mistakenly assume that all lawyers are basically the same. Much like doctors, however, most lawyers are highly specialized. Just as you would not see a podiatrist about a heart problem, you should not see a real estate attorney if someone stole your copyrighted software.
So, finding a lawyer is in part about finding someone with the right background and experience. Depending on the nature and complexity of your intellectual property issue, you may need an attorney with a particular subspecialty, such as patent litigation, media transactions, or trademark defense.
Beyond specialty, you will want to find an attorney who is a good personal match for you and your needs. How can you find the right match, and what criteria should you consider before making your final decision?
Look for Attorneys Active With State and Other Bar Associations
Bar associations are essentially professional organizations of lawyers. They are typically not-for-profit organizations that help lawyers network with one another and stay current on legal developments. There are national bar associations (the largest of which is the American Bar Association), state bar associations (such as the New York State Bar Association), and even city-specific bar associations (for example, the Chicago Bar Association).
Almost all bar associations have created “sections” or “committees” for each specialty area. These would range from criminal law to bankruptcy law to real estate law. On the website of the bar association in your city or state, try to navigate to the committee entitled “Intellectual Property.” Many bar associations will list the committee members and/or the chair of the committee, with a contact email address.
These are ordinarily good folks to contact. While the chair him- or herself might not be the right person to act as your attorney, he or she is clearly involved with the intellectual property community in your area. Bar associations regularly organize conferences, lectures, and other networking events, which means that the chair likely has a sizable network of contacts, and those contacts are committed to their own professional development.
Some bar associations, particularly larger ones, even have formal referral services. But even if you've already gotten the names of prospective attorneys from elsewhere, it's worth checking on their membership and engagement with their local bar association.
Seek Client Referrals
If you wanted to find a good contractor to redo your bathroom, you would probably speak to your neighbors. Similarly, you can often find a good intellectual property lawyer by asking similarly situated individuals or businesses about their legal service providers.
For example, imagine you own a small clothing store and are having a dispute involving your trademark. Surely you know the owners of other clothing, apparel, or luxury stores in town. Give them a call. Ask who they use for their legal needs, particularly for trademark issues. You need not contact a direct competitor, which might feel somewhat awkward. Instead, focus on businesses that are substantially similar but do not directly compete with your own.
You’ll find that many business owners are more than willing to network, mentor, and offer referrals. (Indeed, they may ask you to return the favor one day, perhaps suggesting a good accountant or tax specialist).
Talking with clients is often the best way to find honest guidance on attorneys. Clients are usually loyal to their attorneys, but are open about their attorney’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, clients are likely to complain if their attorney is unresponsive or slow. These pieces of negative information can be just as helpful as a recommendation when you seek representation.
Attend Industry Association Meetings
Whatever your industry, chances are there are professional associations that support your work. As discussed above, bar associations fill that role for attorneys. But there are associations for accountants, jewelers, professors, and just about every other type of profession.
Those types of associations, which often have regional offices or chapters, can be incredibly valuable mechanisms for finding out people's experiences with IP lawyers. Try calling the association’s office, or attending one of their meetings. The association may even have a preselected roster of local attorneys who have been recommended or screened by members.
Check Out Attorneys Online
You can find out a great deal about a prospective attorney's reputation, character, and skills by viewing his or her website and any publications, as well as any relevant online news articles.
And of course, here at Lawyers.com, you can ask to be connected to a lawyer or can search for attorneys by area of law and geography or by name. Attorney profiles display contact information, list topics of expertise, and show ratings—by both clients and other legal professionals.
Interviewing Prospective Lawyers
Needless to say, you should not hire the first lawyer whose name you find. A lawyer will be an important professional connection, a trusted advisor who will stay in your life far longer than the particular intellectual property dispute you now face. Treat the hiring process accordingly.
First, call the lawyer’s office and schedule a meeting. In-person meetings are often better than phone conversations for establishing rapport. Clarify over the phone whether the attorney charges for an initial consultation or not, and ask what materials you should bring.
Second, when you meet with the lawyer, come prepared with specific questions. Get your lawyer’s take on your particular situation, and ask specifically what sorts of similar disputes or issues the lawyer has handled in the past. A lawyer who declines to answer, or indicates having never handled a case like yours before, should perhaps drop lower on your list.
Third, do not be afraid to trust your gut; at least to some degree. You will need to work closely with your lawyer, sometimes over a period of years and sometimes under stressful circumstances. You want to be with someone who makes you feel comfortable and valued. While it is difficult to judge someone in a short consultation meeting, you can certainly collect some data. Does the lawyer come prepared? Does he or she ask questions about your goals and concerns, or merely talk at you? Does the lawyer suggest next-steps and then send you an email or call following the meeting?
All of this data may reveal your potential lawyer’s responsiveness, commitment, and attitude.