Once in a while, opportunities come along for transformational change. It doesn’t happen often and certainly not in companies that already have approaches, systems and processes in place. Intellectual property (IP) firms may, however, be the exception. These are professional firms working at the forefront of innovation – think breakthrough cancer treatments or cutting edge technologies that change the world.

But they are typically smaller than law firms and lag behind in terms of their management sophistication. They are, however, keen to catch up. They can see the advantages that management expertise might bring to their firms – and business services professionals are in line to benefit.

Stepping up to change


At Totum, we have worked with a growing number of IP firms, helping to place business services professionals across all functions. IP firms vary in their requirements: some are hiring their first generation of business managers; others have had teams in place for a number of years. But what they have in common is a growing need for business expertise to manage rising competition and deliver ambitions to expand.

‘This was a real opportunity to instigate and manage change,’ says Shaun Harvey, describing why he accepted the role of Chief Financial & Operating Officer at Mewburn Ellis in 2016. ‘The firm was at a point in its development where it wanted to do things differently and they recognised that the way to do that was to get someone in from outside with experience of different businesses, who could bring a new perspective and be a catalyst for change.’

Sure enough, Harvey brought with him much more than professional services experience. He worked for Bond Dickinson for three years prior to joining Mewburn Ellis, but before that, his experience covered retail, FMCG and logistics, including time at Diageo, Sainsbury’s and Wincanton. In terms of financial management, Harvey thinks that all sectors have much more in common than differences – whether that’s responding to tenders and pricing requirements, or getting better at relationship management. ‘Successfully running a business in professional services is very similar to manufacturing or anything else,’ he says. ‘I never found it a huge transition to move to different sectors.’ But given that law firms can still be conservative about embracing business capabilities from other sectors, his recruitment makes IP firms appear particularly forward looking.

Besides, the COO role really appealed. ‘The breadth of the position – running finance, IT, HR and providing operational support to fee earners – was a huge opportunity,’ he says. ‘I think there was always a lot of ideas going around the firm to improve things, but not the confidence they were the right things. They needed someone to make it happen, who could put in place management behaviours, processes and systems.’

Making change happen


In practice this has meant that Harvey has taken on myriad responsibilities, from implementing a new practice management system, to investigating potential office moves, analysing the firms underlying financial performance, and helping to set the firm’s vision, ambition and strategy. ‘The most challenging aspect of this has been working out the correct priorities for the business,’ he says. ‘It’s then about communication: ensuring you can influence the firm and the partnership, building credibility and taking people with you.’

Polly Shaw, Head of HR at Dehns, has similarly found herself in a highly varied role. She worked in law firms for many years – first Wedlake Bell and then Howard Kennedy before she decided to join Dehns three years ago. ‘The roles in law were often more about fixing situations that arose rather than being mostly strategic,’ she says. ‘At Dehns I had the opportunity to genuinely get involved and shape things from the bottom up.’

She has been able to help the firm implement a whole raft of changes from helping it get up to date on HR systems/policies, but also providing support on areas like employee engagement and developing career frameworks, achieving business goals and raising the profile of HR as a commercial support to the business. The striking aspect of many of these roles is their broad but meaningful remit – a feeling that professionals can use their initiative to get involved wherever is helpful. In the marketing function of IP firms, we have also noticed, for example, how roles may include anything from improving pitching processes to taking a lead role in client relationship management, often including client-facing opportunities, which can still be all too rare in larger law firms.

But whatever the role, success is underpinned by an ability to influence people. ‘Many of the partners have been here their whole careers, there isn’t the lateral movement you get in law,’ says Shaw. ‘That means you have to be very good at justifying and pushing through change on a commercial basis, including different ways of working.’

Embracing the differences: Law v IP


For Harvey, one of the key differences between IP firms and law is just timing: ‘All of the commercial pressures that law firms have faced are now working into the IP sector,’ he says. ‘Having previous experience and now being able to apply them in advance is helpful.’ It also means that IP firms can enjoy a rare moment in time when they can scoop up great business services talent from law – those who have been there, done that and are now seeking something new.

And while IP and law may enjoy professional similarities, there are differentiating elements that make moving into IP a fresh experience. Harvey points out, for example, the different model of doing business. Partners in IP firms tend to lead the work themselves, operating more like barristers’ chambers than big commercial law firms. ‘If a client wants a patent defending, they tend to instruct the individual rather than the team,’ he says.

Shaw also points to the difference between lawyers and patent attorneys, most of whom are trained in science, mathematics and engineering. ‘They are phenomenally intelligent,’ she says. This can make influencing change more challenging – ‘you can almost see their minds scenario planning the details and you have to be fully ready to anticipate and answer the “what if” questions where you can’. But she also says that IP partners are willing to consider new ways of creating a better working environment.

It is likely that IP firms will only seek more professionals like Shaw and Harvey. At both firms, business services functions are growing both in terms of size and remit – Dehns now has a Head of BD, reflecting the function’s step up to a more strategic role in the firm, and last year Mewburn Ellis appointed a Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer with whom Harvey works closely to drive firm-wide objectives.

Seizing the moment


For those interested in taking up a business services role at an IP firm, Harvey highlights the importance of the right fit. ‘There is a huge opportunity for business services professionals to make a big impact in IP because of the stage of development these firms are at,’ he says. ‘But if you don’t have the basic chemistry, it’s really difficult to make change happen.’ For Harvey this meant spending considerable time in the selection process meeting the firm’s people and ensuring that their desire to evolve the business translated to a genuine willingness for action. He was not to be disappointed.

This is a good lesson for IP firms too. There is a wealth of great business talent now in professional services. Being able to give such professionals a genuine opportunity to make a difference is a huge selling point for attracting such talent into IP. And the right business expertise will make a critical difference to how such firms thrive in the face of competition in the years ahead.

But recruitment strategies need to be thought through and tailored to ensure firms attract the right candidates from the best pool. And the follow-up has to be a real commitment to change. Achieve that and IP firms won’t just be at the forefront of third-party innovation, they may well live and breathe it.

If you would like further information or to find out more about opportunities in the IP sector, please contact Rebecca Ellis, who leads our BD and Marketing function or Laura McNair who heads up our HR function.


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