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Trump & Trademarks: Managing Leadership Transition at Law Firms & What Not To Do

Speaking of the recent election, Jess Collen of Forbes, wrote, “If the candidates in an election between a former IP lawyer and a king of brand names don’t talk about trademarks in a campaign, no one ever will.”

Apparently, no one ever will. But that doesn’t mean that Mr. Trump won’t pull an ace from his sleeve during his presidency.

Trump, or at least his company, owns many trademarks. In addition, Trump has a reputation for being litigious.

Forbes alleges that there are likely more than one hundred existing federal registrations to Donald Trump and/or his companies. It might make businesses wonder if Trump is in favor of reorganizing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, or if he is happy with his current cache.

We will have a President who is hyper-sensitive to the value of brand names. Efforts by the courts, legislature or government agencies to lessen those protections will not find a receptive audience in the White House,” concludes Collen for Forbes.

“The incoming President may even argue that his success is built entirely on the fame of his marks. Will that matter?” 

Trademark law is not the only reason businesses are cautiously reacting to a Trump victory.

The pharmaceutical industry, where patent law is highly influential, has been especially tight-lipped in their reaction. Sucampo Pharmaceuticals (SCMP.O), which increased by roughly 31 percent after it raised its full-year sales forecast, was sure not to rock the boat of its shareholders this week, reports Reuters.

“Obviously Hillary Clinton’s agenda was much more well-articulated,” said Chief Executive Officer Peter Greenleaf about Clinton’s promise to regulate prices in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I will be interested to see what we learn as Mr. Trump takes office and we learn more about what his agenda is going to be for the industry.” 

Whether it is as a Presidential leader or law firm one, it is important to articulate a plan of succession. America’s biggest loss at a Trump win is the fact that the President-elect’s policies have not been specifically laid out. In fact, nobody knows what to expect.

In fact, a Trump win fueled a “violent reaction” in the bond market—spooked by Trump’s vague rhetoric calling for massive infrastructure spending and tax cuts, reports CNN Money.

Investors are worried—and confused.

Clients are often concerned for the future when a law firm partner steps down. In most firms, a minimum of 20 to 30 percent of a firm’s total revenue is controlled by partners over the age of 60; naturally, when those partners retire, it puts the business—and its clients—at risk.

Client relationships are your most valuable assets. But far too many firms neglect to plan for the inevitable retirement of senior partners.

Not only should law firms plan for the eventual retirement of senior partners, it should provide to clients detailed answers for the following questions:

  • Who determines whether clients need to be transitioned?
  • Who determines when clients need to be transitioned?
  • Who determines how clients should be transitioned?
  • When to tell the members of the firm (and clients) that a significant rainmaker will be reducing his or her active involvement in the firm?
  • How to select the most appropriate successors?

If you are a law firm manager and your firm has no such plan in place, take The Center For Competitive Management’s live webinar, “Transitioning Partners and Client Transfers: Guide to Retaining Key Clients When Partners Retire,” on Thursday, December 1st, 2016, from 2:00pm – 3:15pm Eastern (EDT).

This essential webinar will explain (1) how to make client transfer decisions for individual partners as they transition to retirement; and (2) how smart firms can prepare for issues associated with senior-level partners’ departure, before a client crisis occurs.

The stock market may not have fully recovered from a Trump victory, but your firm can protect its assets and clients from experiencing a similarly volatile leadership transition.



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When Law Firm Management Seems Complex & Uncertain, Start Listening To Your Clients

Because the law, itself, takes so long to change, it’s not surprising that attorneys often resist change in their practice of law.

Take, for example, the complex attorney-client relationship.

The relationship depends, in part, on the attorney’s expert knowledge of the convoluted court system through which the client, flush with problems and cash, needs to navigate.

The system whereby an attorney uses legalese and unnecessary legal jargon to explain litigation matters relating to a client’s business (one where the client nods along in feigned understanding) is age-old.

Why change?

With this in mind, the following story by Otto Sorts about attorney-client interaction seemed laughably familiar:

“Early in my law career, I had a conversation with a client that convinced me of its merits. He was quite a bit older than me, and had originally trained as an engineer. After we discussed his complaint and shifted to focus on the arrangements, he asked for a schedule. I began my usual uncomfortable explanation about the vagaries of the process and the complex nature of litigation, how it depended on the judge, opposing counsel and other uncertainties in the case.”

How many times does an attorney have to explain the process of a docket, court schedule, and fickle whims of its judges to a concerned client? A schedule just isn’t an easy work product to create.

Or is it?

“After a long silence, he shook his head, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, that’s just plain bullshit. Life itself is complex and uncertain, but we live it every day, anyway.’ Then he took me to school on how to think about the work to create a rough schedule—and manage the damn project.”

Otto Sorts then goes on to explain the basic flow-chart necessary to manage any project. You can read more in his article here.

Proper project management is essential for a law firm to retain clients, win cases, and earn a profit.

However, more than that, clarity and understanding between an attorney and his client is key to success.

During a time when more and more clients are asking for transparency in law firm billing and suing firms for fraudulent charges, law firms now, more than ever, must open up communication channels between the practice and the people represented by it.

The recession has eliminated any professional and personal trust that once existed between counsel and client.

Instead, garner confidence by giving clients exactly what they asked for: more productive hours, transparent invoicing, a checklist of work product accomplished, and—oh yeah—a schedule that details what tasks have been completed and ones still pending, and why.

The above seems obvious.

But, so does (1) Define the project, (2) Identify the steps, and (3) Find the interconnections and chronology for each step, which are the first three points for Otto Sorts’ project management flow chart. Still, so many firms miss deadlines or misappropriate work by not following these simple procedures.

Sometimes “make a change” can mean “return to the fundamentals” of running a law firm—people and project management.

So after your accountants crunch the numbers, administrators train the staff, and managers assign the case-matters, if your law firm still comes up short, go back to the basics. And listen to your clients.


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What If Apple Operated Like A Law Firm?

We’ve already discussed what it would be like if Apple owned your law firm. (Though people remain unconvinced that allowing non-attorneys to own stakes in law firms is a good idea).

But, what about the reverse—what if Apple was run like a law firm?

This question was answered by J. Benjamin Stevens in his article, “The Legal Mac: What if Apple Stores Billed by the Hour?” Stevens described his recent experience at a Mac Store where he bought a screen protector for his iPhone. In under 10 minutes, he had received advice and service from three Apple employees.

The first asked him if he needed help, and pointed him in the direction of the needed product. The second suggested he seek help before installing his screen protector and led him to the third employee. The third employee installed the screen protector flawlessly, and sent Stevens back on his way.

Stevens postulates what their timesheets would look like in this scenario:

  • Anil would write, “Conference with client in regards to optimal protection for said client’s iPhone 3G screen, to wit: a screen protector. Referral to Angelina for point-of-sale transaction … 0.1 hours.”
  • Angelina: “Conference with client in regards to point-of-sale transaction for one (1) screen protector for said client’s iPhone 3G (three G). Discussion in regards to additional products needed for purchase. Referral to Pam for screen-protector installation … 0.1 hours.”
  • And Pam: “Conference with client in regards to installation of iPhone screen protector. Cleaning and maintenance of said client’s said iPhone screen. Further conference with client in regards to having a nice evening … 0.1 hours.”

However, despite what Stevens considers to be three separate, helpful customer service moments, Apple earned only $14.95 in sales revenue from this interaction. And, even though Stevens spent only 6 minutes total in the store, each Apple employee would record on their timesheets 0.1 hours—three times the actual amount spent accommodating the client.

Of course, law firms have varying systems in place for double (and triple) billing by multiple lawyers, Stevens points out. The majority of firms would cut these duplicative hours before invoicing the client.

But associates are still encouraged to boost their billable hours and decrease nonbillable time.

“So if the Apple Store were run like a law firm, Anil and Pam would have been discouraged from such “nonbillable” work as helping me choose or affix an inexpensive screen protector, in favor of “billable” work like selling a new Mac Pro. If the Apple Store employees focused on selling billable hours, they wouldn’t be wasting time helping customers with little things like this,” Steven laments.

“But then again, if that had been the case, maybe I wouldn’t have returned to an Apple Store a few weeks later to buy the $2,500 MacBook Air that I wrote this article on.”

Stevens did, in fact, purchase a new Macbook computer a few weeks later. It turns out that superior customer service—essentially nonbillable time—compelled a client to seek future business, and become a loyal customer.

Stevens concludes, “In law firms where lawyers are measured by the hours they bill, they are effectively punished for nonbillable time spent helping clients. Which is why people love going to the Apple Store, and hate dealing with lawyers.”

Next time, as an administrator, you’re questioning the timesheets of associates, ask yourself what kind of experience you’re selling to the client—the Apple one, or the traditional law firm one. If you’d prefer your firm run like Apple, educated your associates on good customer service, and encourage a small amount of unbillable time to serve a greater purpose and profit.


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