Many times in life it is easy to make a good first impression and be taken seriously. If you go to a job interview and you arrive on-time and wearing a suit that sends a message. Similarly, if you are going out on a first date or meeting the parents of your significant other, there are things you can do to make a positive first impression. But in the patent world it may not be so easy for inventors.
It is important for inventors to understand that there is reluctance among some patent attorneys to take on independent inventors as clients. This is at least in part because some independent inventors take up an extraordinary amount of time and rarely convert into clients. Even if they do convert into clients many want to pay a low rate and are never satisfied.
For example, I’ve had situations where a prospective inventor client has told me that my “bid” was far too high and, in fact, much higher than other “bids” received. In one particular situation I was told that a particular inventor would entertain another, much lower bid if I wanted to be in the running for the work.
I do not “bid” for work, nor do I compete with extreme low cost providers. Similarly, serious, competent, qualified patent attorneys are never going to “bid” for your work and try and compete with some ridiculously low quote. Competent, qualified patent attorneys are going to determine how much work legitimately needs to be done and they will give you a fair and reasonable quote. If there are legitimate ways to pursue a more austere path those can be discussed, but you are never going to pay for a Yugo and receive a Cadillac. The only way to keep costs low in the patent world is to do less work, which can be a recipe for disaster. A race to the bottom for the lowest cost provider guarantees inferior quality.
In other situations I’ve heard inventors openly complain that their patent attorney wants to charge them every time they call with a question. Throughout my career whenever I’ve heard that I politely ended the conversation and declined representation. An inventor who says that simply doesn’t understand the nature of the legal relationship, which will cause problems later (if not sooner). The only thing an attorney has to sell is time, whether that is to perform legal services or give advice. Giving time away for free on a routine basis is a recipe for business disaster for an attorney.
In still other situations I have heard from inventors that they want to receive a bulk discount an application because they have something like 20 other inventions they are ready to move forward with in the very near future. My response is always the same: “We certainly do give bulk discounts, but a bulk discount requires bulk work and right now we seem to be talking about a single patent application.” Whenever an inventor asks for a bulk discount from the start suspicions arise. You simply cannot give a bulk discount for a single piece of work, and inventors who ask for a bulk discount immediately without a willingness to move forward with multiple inventions send the wrong message every time. They simply do not get taken seriously.
The reality that many inventors don’t want to accept is that any patent attorney can create a patent application for $1,200. Of course, the application that you get for $1,200 will be worth $1,200. You simply will not receive the same patent application for $1,200 as you would if you were willing to pay $12,000. But many inventors have in their head that they are getting a deal when they find an extreme low cost provider. Nothing could be further from the truth. The old saying about getting what you pay for is particularly true with respect to patent applications.
With all this in mind, how does a serious inventor find the help they need and a reputable, experienced patent attorney? Inventors who want to work with a reputable and experienced patent attorney will do themselves a great favor if they try and understand the business realities facing the patent attorney. There are only so many hours in a day to work, and spending a lot of time with those who are not likely to turn into clients, or good clients, is not a winning business strategy for any attorney. Therefore, you want to present from the outset as someone who is serious. Keeping this in mind will pay dividends as you seek out a patent attorney you are comfortable with, who you trust, and who is able to collaborate with you to form a good and prosperous working relationship.
To present as a serious inventor you need to always remember the importance of first impressions. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Therefore, it is critical to remember that the initial contact is very important.
Asking for a free consultation, while perhaps reasonable, may set you off in the wrong direction from the start. A reputable and experienced patent attorney likely does not need your work and will not likely participate in an interview process.
Perhaps things should not be this way, but many patent attorneys get calls all day long from inventors who want to ask questions and get free advice. If I had our phone number on this website we would be inundated with calls all day long by people seeking free advice without any interest in ever signing on as a client. I know this because periodically over the years we have experimented and every time the same thing happens.
In the past we have had our phone number on the website and even having a toll-free phone number from time to time. When we had a toll-free phone number listed on every page in our website we would literally receive calls all day long from inventors who were merely fishing for free legal advice, and that was when our traffic numbers were a fraction of what they are today. I would talk to people about everything. I can’t tell you how many times the conversation would end something like this: “That is what I have been telling my patent attorney.” So many people who were presenting themselves as potentially interested in representation couldn’t help themselves and eventually disclosed they had just wasted your time on a false pretense.
In multiple situations, when I would return a message left on voice mail the inventor would say something like, “OK, who are you again? I’ve called so many attorneys today I don’t know who you are.” Open mouth, insert foot. That is the telltale sign of someone who is fishing and not serious.
If you want to be taken seriously in business you really should do everything you can to approach the business of inventing as that, a business. If you are just calling around for the first patent attorney who will return your call that doesn’t suggest you are all that serious. There are other ways to educate yourself that don’t require eating the time of a professional who only has time to sell.
Taking even a modest amount of time to handle inquiries by those fishing for free information and advice on how they can represent themselves without hiring an attorney causes the attorney to eat up valuable time that could be spent working, earning or engaging in activities likely to bring in paying clients. This is the reality of working with independent inventors, and it really needs to be understood.
If you know the business reality of the patent attorney you are contacting you are likely to understand the dynamic of the initial contact and present in such a way as to maximize getting good help, or at least pointed in the right direction. So inventors who call or otherwise contact a patent attorney should do whatever possible to initially come across like a serious prospective client, not someone looking to get questions answered so they can do it themselves. This is not to say that you should not ask questions, but if you know you are not going to hire the person you are calling and you only want to ask general questions you should probably be calling the USPTO Inventor Helpline.
Probably the best way to initiate contact with a patent attorney is via e-mail. Over the years whenever we have experimented with making our phone number more readily available it would become clear that overwhelmingly those that initiate contact via e-mail are far more likely to turn into clients than someone who just picks up the phone and calls. So if you are serious about wanting to hire an attorney sending an e-mail, or perhaps calling and setting up an appointment with an attorney for a telephone conference is the better way to go. It suggests a certain business savvy understanding.
Regardless of how you initiate contact, I recommend that you do some homework on the patent attorney before your call. Do an Internet search to see what you can find out about the attorney and the firm the attorney is associated with. Also contact that USPTO and the State Bar Association where the attorney is admitted and ask if there have been any complaints filed against the attorney.
Another good way to find a patent attorney is to join an inventors group and ask the members for recommendations. Most patent attorneys get business through referrals from happy clients, and you might not otherwise be able to find them given all the advertising on the Internet by the more dubious companies and low cost providers in the invention space. With a referral you are also likely to get through to an attorney easier and they are likely to treat you as a real prospective client rather than just as someone calling around for free advice. I know from personal experience when someone has been referred to me by a colleague, client or former client, that bumps him or her up to the front of the line. It means there is a certain seriousness and someone I know and likely trust has already done a certain amount of vetting. Even if all you have are general questions being referred moves you to the front of the serious line if for no other reason than someone you know, perhaps a very good client or friend, has asked you to take a moment to chat with someone.
When you have found an attorney or two you think you might be interested in working with make contact. I would not anticipate getting directly through to the patent attorney immediately unless you were referred by someone known by the patent attorney. If you can speak to a live person, whether an assistant or paralegal, find out whether the patent attorney is taking new clients and what the wait time is for getting an application prepared and filed. Also find out if the attorney has worked with inventors in your technical area previously. Also ask how the attorney prefers to work with clients. Many patent attorneys do not meet with clients in person and do everything by phone, fax and e-mail. This is completely fine, and not at all unusual. You are hiring an attorney who you trust, you think you can work with, and who has some specific technical expertise. That frequently means you are going to (or should) hire an attorney who is not in a geographically convenient area to facilitate a one-on-one in person meeting. I have represented many inventors over the years and virtually all of them are outside my geographical area. I’ve represented inventors from all over the U.S. and as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Of course, if you prefer to meet someone in person as the client you are certainly (and legitimately) able to factor that into the equation.
It is also important for inventors to understand that what seems like an easy question is virtually never an easy question. Many times inventors will present by saying, “I just have one quick, easy question. Is my invention patentable?” That may seem like an easy question, but it is absolutely not an easy question. Like so much in life, in the area of patent law and inventing there are few, if any, easy questions. Answers require an intensive understanding of the surrounding facts. In at least 95% of cases the only way to know whether an invention is patentable is to do a patent search and carefully compare the invention with the prior art located in the patent search.
Always remember that a representation relationship is just that, a relationship. Who you work with is an important decision and patent attorneys operate differently. At the end of the day what you should be looking for is someone who is competent and who you connect with on some level. In my opinion, when representation is most successful there is a good working relationship between the attorney and inventor, and that requires a certain comfort level and familiarity. Try and work with someone in a symbiotic way. No matter how good the inventor, the invention or the patent attorney, an “oil and water” relationship cannot result in the best work product or the most beneficial ultimate outcome.
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4 comments so far.
RussJune 9, 2015 06:30 pm
I certainly empathize with you on the number of “tire kickers” and fishers of free information that you must get.
I must confess to being in that category, but I have a need for better understanding of what can be patented, and what cannot be patented.
I offer Fantasy Sports contests on my website. I have made innovations to the ways that users obtain information about their Selections, and the interactivity of the Entry Forms where players make their selections.
My innovations make my Contests easier and better to enter. I do not want other Contest sites to be able to simply copy what I am doing.
So, I am not clear about whether I am trying to patent “software’ or an innovation in a “game” or patent a website.
Are there ways to obtain answers to my question without having to commit to paying thousands of dollars in attorney fees?
Would Patent Attorneys help me answer my question for a preliminary fee?
angry dudeMarch 28, 2015 05:42 pm
The real question independent inventors (and cash strapped startups) should ask themselves nowadays is this:
Do I really want to publicly disclose my invention to the world in return for a piece of paper called US patent ?
The answer, of course – it depends.
But, if invention can be kept a trade secret then in most cases the answer would be a resounding NO !
Gene QuinnMarch 28, 2015 02:20 pm
Amen! There are many reasons to get a patent, and hanging it on the wall and being validated is perfectly legitimate. Conveying that to the attorney would be enormously helpful because it really will impact the relationship and choices made.
I also completely agree with your other point. If inventors demonstrate a business understanding it always sets them apart. Although they don’t like to hear it, inventing is the easy part. It is the only part that you have complete control over. Getting a patent is just the beginning. Why do you want or need a patent and how will it facilitate your business strategy.
AnonMarch 28, 2015 02:13 pm
Excellent article Gene.
One addition that I would have made: an inventor often impresses me when he understands that obtaining a patent is only one step in a larger business plan.
Questions that evidence this understanding come in the shapes of “what then?” or “how should I look to enforce?” or even, “how do I make the most of the application/patent in the meantime?”
Of course, there are those rare occasions that might find an inventor wanting a patent purely for prestige or to be able to merely say that they have a patent pending (without a tie into a business plan), and when both of us are clear on this point, the relationship tends to run smoother.