One man’s confusion is another man’s opportunity. Early in his career, Dr Brett Lunn was appointed by a client who had already been to another patent attorney. ‘After an hour there, they had no clue as to what they had been told,’ he recalls. ‘That is just unacceptable.’ While it proved fortunate for Lunn, it was also an instructive lesson – and taking the opposite approach, speaking in plain English and putting the client’s needs first, has proved a successful strategy for FB Rice, the firm where Lunn has worked for the past 20 years and has been managing partner since 2009.
FB Rice, based in Sydney and Melbourne, is a specialist intellectual property (IP) firm, and determinedly so. ‘We went through a period of introspection, but decided that the key for us was to remain IP specialists. We felt it important to be excellent in what we do and have taken the deliberate tack of not establishing a complementary law firm or bringing in house any other service that might somehow relate to IP,’ Lunn says.
Part of this specialisation is a keen understanding of the client and their needs. ‘For a long time, patent attorneys were guilty of getting a patent without thinking about the client’s needs, and then failing to understand why the client wasn’t happy. It is no longer just about obtaining a patentor trademark, but understanding what the client is after and working hard to deliver the appropriate outcome,’ explains Lunn.
The fact that most of the firm’s clients are based in Australia helps with this more personal approach. ‘Our competitors are more focused on foreign work, and that is a more clinical arrangement, where you are just a small cog in the wheel,’ Lunn adds. By contrast, FB Rice’s selling point is its closer engagement with clients, including working in-house, if appropriate.
Concentrating on quality also eases pricing pressure. Lunn accepts that there is competitive pricing for activities with little intellectual input, but his firm is clear on where and how it adds value, and believes it can charge accordingly. ‘Clients really appreciate what we bring. At that point, there is very little cost pressure,’ he explains.
Key to this focus on providing specialist work is the firm’s involvement with CPA Global. FB Rice outsourced its renewal services to CPA Global more than 20 years ago, which helped differentiate the firm from competitors. ‘CPA Global provides something we could never do with the resources we have,’ says Lunn. FB Rice has also been heavily involved in the development of Inprotech, CPA Global’s IP management software, specially designed for law firms. ‘This gave us advantages with regards to the quality of the product we could deliver, given the number of people we had,’ explains Lunn. ‘The system is now one of the cornerstones of the firm. We are also regular users of their Discover patent research platform.’
Much of FB Rice’s work is domestic, but the focus is far from insular – and that’s by necessity, as well as strategy. The Australian and New Zealand governments have plans to further integrate the two countries’ patent offices, including the introduction of a single patent application that will cover both jurisdictions, which Lunn feels could be an interesting development. He also points to Australian involvement at the Fédération Internationale des Conseils en Propriété Industrielle and the Asian Patent Attorneys Association, stating that the country ‘boxes above its weight’ in international activity.
In terms of client interest, attention is inevitably being drawn to China. Three years ago, FB Rice ran a seminar on patenting in China, which was met with substantial scepticism. This year, it is running a trade mission to China for biotech clients – interest levels have changed dramatically. ‘One of our patent attorneys has been on secondment in Beijing, and has been able to demonstrate to clients that the ability to enforce your patents in China is, in some ways, greater than in other countries. The system is very supportive to patentees, in particular foreign patentees,’ says Lunn.
FB Rice has changed considerably since Lunn joined in 1992, but Lunn says the firm has always been forward-thinking. One result of its willingness to consider unusual ideas was its opening of a second office in Melbourne – not the obvious move it might seem in retrospect: ‘There were a lot of patent attorney firms already based in Melbourne, so it seemed unusual to be establishing an office in a market supposedly already well serviced,’ he says. ‘But the firm took that bold step and it has been incredibly successful.’
Similarly, the firm’s early commitment to its electronic database put it ahead of the competition. It was an investment that now enables FB Rice to file patent applications and related downstream work more efficiently than many of its competitors. This means well-qualified new recruits entering the firm need not be tied up with relatively routine tasks, freeing them to focus on higher-level work.
Such is the calibre of today’s recruits that there is a long-standing joke in the firm that senior patent attorneys would not get a job today. It’s this kind of investment in the future – in new talent and technology – that has enabled the firm to thrive over the past 20 years. However, Lunn’s comments also underline the benefits of understanding the market and being ready to move with it. The new breed of attorney may be exceptionally well qualified, but it is the old guard who know how to play to their strengths.
FB RICE IN BRIEF
The firm was founded in 1949 by Frederick Bernhard Rice as a way to support Australia’s scientific community. Today, with more than 40 IP professionals in offices in Sydney and Melbourne, the firm pursues the same goal.
FB Rice prides itself on long-term relationships – both with clients, who value the personal service offered, and with its employees, many of whom were recruited as trainees and have remained at the firm ever since.