Chief IP Counsel Tips for Building a High-Impact Team

“Without the benefit of these tips, a team still may be above average—even great at times. But it’s unlikely to be the type of team that consistently acts at a world-class level.”

I didn’t come here to be average. – Michael Jordan corporate intellectual property practitioners, the quest to excel can be daunting and all-consuming. Indeed, IP teams and their clients face a multitude of complex internal and external challenges amidst an ever-evolving business, legal, and technology landscape. Cognizant of the considerable trust and influence bestowed upon them by the C-suite, IP teams naturally desire to perform at the highest possible level.

As chief IP counsel at a global company, I constantly put myself and my team under the proverbial microscope. I reflect upon our people, strategy, and operations; assess our individual and collective performance; and seek new ways to maximize the value we deliver to our company and internal clients. In some instances, such new ways entail minor course corrections. In other instances, they encompass the pursuit of novel pathways that upend the status quo.

Throughout my chief IP counsel journey, experience has been a generous teacher, bringing valuable lessons, crystallized understandings, and realizations that past philosophies or approaches were faulty or incomplete. I also attribute much of my learning to collaborating with IP and other legal colleagues, internal stakeholders, and external partners.

To build a formidable IP function, corporate IP teams can leverage the following ten tips. Likewise, teams within corporate legal departments, law firms, and legal and IP software and service providers can adapt and apply these tips to great effect.

1. Dedicate sufficient bandwidth to strategic work.

It’s often assumed that sweeping strategic and tactical duties can coexist within the same job role. However, this assumption is based more on wishful thinking than reality.

Though strategy and tactics are distinct—the former focusing on overarching planning and the latter on taking concrete actions toward an outcome—both types of work are time-intensive. Moreover, when one has divided loyalties to both, the typically less-flexible deadlines and greater task-related demands of tactical projects tend to take precedence over strategic projects.

In sum, too heavy a workload of tactical work inevitably encroaches upon the kind of strategic work that can help an IP team reach the highest level of performance.

Accordingly, from the outset, chief IP counsel and similar leadership roles should be scoped to devote substantial job bandwidth to strategic efforts and to management and development of team members.

2. Design a customized departmental architecture.

Some general counsels and IP leaders apply a conventional mindset to organizing the IP function.

For example, they may view a suitable team structure as comprising attorneys, paralegals, and assistants, each role being a catch-all for a broad array of duties large and small, complex and straightforward, legal and operational, strategic and tactical. When project workload increases across the team, they may say reflexively, “We need another headcount.”

Nevertheless, such all-purpose roles may not best serve the needs of internal clients. For instance, large, multi-layered research and development teams or product marketing teams may include constituents with widely varying needs and parts to play in the broader IP ecosystem; a single IP role may not adequately service all those constituents. Further, vesting disparate, competing, or incompatible duties in the same IP role may be inefficient and self-defeating.

Legal and IP leaders should take a step back and construct a departmental architecture that is optimized for the constituents being served, and to meet the unique challenges faced by their enterprise.

Such an architecture should effect an appropriate division of labor across the team. It can utilize a mix of roles with varying strategic and tactical remit, such as attorneys, patent agents, IP engineers, analysts, paralegals, brand enforcement managers, and IP operations specialists. It can enable seasoned professionals to delegate appropriate tasks to less experienced counterparts.

3. Place the right people in the right roles.

For a team to reach its full potential, the right architecture must be staffed with the right people.

This means ensuring that each individual team member occupies a role in which he or she is well suited to excel. This state of alignment has been termed high match quality. Assigning task-oriented professionals to roles requiring creative, integrative, and big-picture thinking may prove to be a failing proposition for both those individuals and the team at large. The converse is often true when strategists occupy roles principally rooted in hands-on execution of tasks.

Right staffing also means fielding a mix of team members with differing and complementary talents. An exemplary high-performing team may include members who individually or collectively embody these personas:

  • a tireless tactician
  • a thought leader or strategist
  • a subject-matter expert on applicable laws
  • a subject-matter expert on relevant technologies
  • an analytics expert
  • an inspiring people leader and mentor
  • a critical thinker who can navigate unstructured domains
  • an operations expert
  • a relationship builder and clear communicator
  • a savvy software adopter and administrator
  • a holder of institutional knowledge

Yet, even with high match quality and coverage of necessary talents among team members, a team may fall short if team chemistry is lacking. Just like any relationship, collegial relationships falter when parties do not feel strong natural rapport, particularly in settings requiring a high degree of collaborative problem solving. If working together feels forced and unnatural, colleagues are unlikely to reach their full potential.

Teams rarely check all the above boxes by chance. Thus, leaders should act intentionally to assemble and nurture the right team and make changes as needed over time.

4. Define and cultivate vision and team culture.

It’s critical to clearly define and articulate to team members what an IP department is about—its mission and core values—and where it’s going—its vision. Such defined identity and directional predicates set the stage for selecting, scoping, and executing impactful initiatives.

In addition, by visibly and consistently modelling core values, leaders can shape and reinforce the culture of the team and rally its members around departmental objectives.

A gifted leader I know often says, “We have zero tolerance for outliers.” In other words, people running at cross purposes to an organization’s culture inevitably sabotage what is achievable.

As such, leaders should vigilantly watch for, and decisively address, attitudes and behaviors that are incongruent with the desired team culture.

5. Be data driven.

For years, the legal and IP software and services industries have extolled data as an enabler and driver of budgetary stewardship, process improvement, and sound legal, business, and operational decision-making. Until recently, to some professionals, such pronouncements seemed merely aspirational.

Increasingly, tools and technologies are coming to the fore to help deliver on the promise of data. It behooves every IP team to explore relevant offerings, to adopt high-impact solutions to the extent possible, and to partner with internal stakeholders and external partners to capture and utilize data to elevate team performance.

For instance, armed with robust analytics tools, teams can be proactive in spotting developments and trends, communicating the same to clients, and adjusting course. Data-equipped teams also can develop a deep, fulsome understanding of their portfolios, the competitive context, and resource usage, in a manner aligned with business imperatives.

6. Constantly question.

To leaders and teams who seek excellence, blindly accepting the status quo is anathema. Just like their internal clients, they constantly question all facets of their practice. When their assessments indicate a better or possibly better way, they explore, rationalize, reimagine, test, adapt, and evolve.

Too often, IP teams risk becoming complacent, distracted by the churn of large patent and brand portfolios, new product introductions, administrative upkeep, and other time- and labor-intensive tasks that make team members feel productive.

Effective IP teams fixate on impact, not activity, as their North Star for tackling challenges and holding themselves accountable. They pose fundamental questions like, “Why are we doing this?”, “What value does it bring?”, “Do we need to do it?”, and “Are there other ways?” With honest answers in hand, they position and pivot accordingly.

Without personnel who are wired to self-reflect and embrace change, an IP team is destined to remain reactive and underperforming, missing a plethora of opportunities to raise the bar on individual and team performance.

7. Run initiatives like project managers.

Beyond bread-and-butter substantive matters and department administration, IP teams may take on complex, large-scale projects, such as portfolio rationalization or monetization projects, implementation of new software, and M&A or other significant transactional matters.

To fulfill their commitments, engineering, supply chain, IT, and a host of other business functions routinely employ tried-and-true project management techniques, such as (a) methodically tracking action items and milestones, including deadlines and progress made toward completion; (b) scheduling frequent touchpoints among project participants; and (c) proactively communicating with stakeholders.

So too can IP and legal teams apply such techniques to facilitate effective project execution, mitigate problems collaboratively and expeditiously, and ultimately accomplish project goals.

Teams that fail to approach their work with similar rigor may find that deadlines slip, misunderstandings arise, issues become chronic, and successes are unappreciated within their organization.

8. Be transparent and foster ongoing dialogue with business leaders.

IP teams should not show up in the C-suite only during crises. They need to actively communicate with enterprise leaders in both good and bad times.

Cadences should be established to (a) equip leaders with an understanding of a team’s strategy and underlying rationale, (b) solicit their views and inputs, and (c) highlight what the team is achieving. Such efforts serve to align IP and business strategies, gain executive buy-in for chosen paths, and garner support for investing essential resources.

The credibility and reputation of an otherwise high-impact, visionary IP function most certainly will suffer if business leaders perceive the function to be opaque, uncommunicative, or otherwise detached from other enterprise functions.

9. Collaborate to complement.

Some leaders view the delegation of important work as a sign of weakness or an ill-advised tack. Some think that they should have the requisite knowledge, skills, and talents to personally dispatch whatever lands on their desk. Others fear that letting go will result in substandard work product. Still others don’t want to share credit with colleagues.

In contrast, highly effective leaders tend to be generalists who recognize their limitations, appreciate who or what is needed to fill gaps, and form cohorts to get work done. They’re adept at solving problems collaboratively by harnessing complementary talents of others to marry with their own.

Such leaders foster synergistic relationships within and outside their organization, both to address current known problems and to prepare to address future unknown problems.

This may involve requiring team members to connect regularly with colleagues in sister business units, outside the context of pending substantive matters. Or it may entail meeting periodically with outside legal providers to brainstorm ways to achieve greater operational efficiencies for mutual advantage.

10. Look outward.

No matter the talents and knowledge it possesses, an IP team should diligently canvas the outside world for ideas to combine with its own.

An outward, forward-looking mindset positions a team at the forefront of modern approaches to the practice.

Making and cultivating connections through conferences, associations, and other networking efforts may lead to the trading of ideas and other fruitful conversations with peers. Similarly, following thought leaders on LinkedIn, listening to podcasts, reading articles and books, and dialoguing with relevant technology vendors can offer bountiful source material to up a team’s game.

On the other hand, an insular mindset deprives teams and their internal clients of valuable insights applicable to legal, business, and operational aspects of the IP function.

Keeping It World-Class

Leaders and teams owe it to their enterprise to leverage the ten tips described above. Without the benefit of these tips, a team still may be above average—even great at times. But it’s unlikely to be the type of team that consistently acts at a world-class level, delivering maximum value to the enterprise.

Image Source: Deposit Photos
Author: stuartmiles
Image ID: 10584789


Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of

Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    September 11, 2023 05:39 pm

    I do cringe at the epithet of “just a cost center,” as ALL Senior Management could (but is typically exempt) from being portrayed in exactly those same terms.

    I do agree about not being ‘mere naysayers,’ but would caution that THAT label may be bandied about exactly when saying nay IS appropriate — after immersion and in defense of the corporation.

    I further admit that the role is immensely more complicated for multinational companies with global footprints.

    All this aside, the full spectrum of size and reach should still be aiming to build the positive aspects of Mr. Cotrone’s article.

  • [Avatar for Sanjay Agrawal]
    Sanjay Agrawal
    September 8, 2023 06:27 am

    At the end of the day, any legal team is just a cost center for a corporation. The high-performance team has to add significant value and contribute to the bottom line and not just be a set of risk managers. In the IP world that means strategizing IP for monetary gain, as well as defending the corporations current and future commercial products, know-how, and brand. The IP team has to immerse itself in the business and understand global corporate strategy and not be mere legal naysayers. This is especially true when advising multinational companies with a global footprint and dealing with various laws and cultures.