To flourish, an idea must be developed, nourished, and, these days, protected. Filing for a patent with the U.S. government is just one step along that road, but it is a crucial step. For that purpose, you'll want to work with a well-known and effective patent lawyer.
So how do you find a good patent lawyer?
Just as you wouldn't start flipping through your local phone book these days to find an attorney, the Google search should largely be avoided. A typical search, even with local parameters, yields an onslaught of promotional sites that provide nearly indistinguishable services. Avoid 800 numbers and highly-templated websites – you know the ones, comprised of stock images and primary-colored fonts.
There are better ways to search for a patent lawyer, but first, you should do your homework, and know precisely what – or whom – you are looking for.
Dig Deeper: Inc.com's Guide to Intellectual Property
Finding a Good Patent Lawyer: Know Your Needs and Do Your Research
Intellectual property covers a wide swath of legal issues, from entertainment to media to contract and copyright law. Before deciding whether you want to work with a lawyer who strictly deals in patents, or one who can advise you on other potentially relevant areas of intellectual property in the future, first you must assess your needs.
If your business is based only on creating, marketing, and selling innovative products, you might look for someone who specializes in and whose practice is solely focused on patents and copyright. By contrast, if your company also embarks on online pursuits or publishing, a lawyer who deals also in First Amendment and information technology law could be a useful partner.
Should your business already have legal counsel, it is certainly advisable to assess whether they might be able to cover patents for you as well, though you should not fall into the habit of using the lawyer you have as a substitute for the lawyer you want.
Before you vet patent lawyers, it's helpful to know just how much competition you – and they – will have from other patent holders. A quick search of the U.S. Patent Office website will yield information on your market and identify would-be competitors. If it is an active space, then it is probably going to take a lot of effort to secure your product's future. In that case, you'll likely need an attorney with great credentials and much experience in the area, says John E. Clarkin, professor of entrepreneurship at the College of Charleston. But be prepared: A higher level of experience will cost you plenty more in billable hours.
Dig Deeper: How to Secure a Patent
Finding a Good Patent Lawyer: Know Where to Search
Once you know what you're looking for, you can – and should – skip the typical step of asking around in social and business circles for someone reliable. "The absolute worst thing you can do is talk to your friends and hear so-and-so's brother is an attorney, you know he does wills and stuff," Clarkin says. Instead, search the reliable site Lawyers.com using the specific parameters you've laid out as well as your geographic area.
Select "business" as the topic and scroll down to find the area of practice – intellectual property – for which you are looking. From there, you can select a sub-category to further specify your needs.
Once you have a short list of qualified attorneys, conduct a Google search on each of them. Look for clues to their reputation; quotes to the press, which will indicate how a lawyer may represent you; and a sense of workload. If a lawyer is tied up with a alrge or ongoing case, you may want to pass on him or her. If you want to dig even deeper, call your state Bar Association and ask whether the lawyers you are considering remain in good standing, and confirm the background you've found them to have.
Dig Deeper: When to Hire an Attorney
Finding a Good Patent Lawyer: Doing a Preliminary Interview
Once you've done your homework and have come up with a list of perhaps four or five great candidates, reach out to their offices first to make sure they're taking new clients and, secondly, to schedule a preliminary interview.
"I treat attorneys like I do physicians. I go through an interview process," Clarkin says. "This is a person I'm going to spend a lot of money on and they will determine the health of my business."
Treat the preliminary interview as you would a business partner meeting. Come prepared, dressed for a professional meeting, and bring along any relevant information that might help the lawyer determine whether working with you will be a good fit. (Remember, this is a two-way street.)
You'll also want to come prepared with a slate of questions, which can include: How, specifically, do you go about a patent search? What are some of the patents you've registered in the past? How long does the process take? How much can I expect it will cost? You should also ask for references of clients she or he has worked with in the past – and do check them. It could also be advisable to get a reference from a bank.
The other things to check on are whether the lawyer, his or her family, or clients, have any conflicts of interests. Does she or he represent any interests opposing to or intersecting with your business? Also ask for a copy of the firm's retainer agreement and make sure you understand it thoroughly before moving forward.
Arming yourself with the most possible information in an interview will help you – and the intellectual property lawyers you are dealing with – determine which relationship is right for your business.
Dig Deeper: Working With Your Lawyer