The $64,000 innovation question

At first glance, the popular answer may be “Absolutely nothing.” But those three seemingly unrelated topics might actually have a profound effect on your business and the quality of your intellectual property legal representation.

Yahoo made some waves last month by issuing an edict that it was discontinuing its telecommuting program.  While many in the techno press panned the decision as backward thinking, Yahoo’s rationale is actually quite interesting.  Yahoo’s reasoning was not based on efficiency, productivity or employee morale, it was based on innovation.

Yes, innovation—that magical moment sparked by conversations and personal interaction at the vending machine, water cooler and even in the restroom.  While some studies have shown an increase in worker productivity through the use of telecommuting, studies by Google and Isaac Kohane of Harvard Medical School have shown that people who work in close proximity create a positive impact on a company’s business, including innovation.  Therefore, telecommuting may work for those who perform repetitive routine tasks as their productivity may increase, but it may not be so effective for employees whose jobs rely on collaboration with other individuals.

For example, telecommuting may work well for telemarketers, call centers, help desks, etc., but probably will not work well for people in product development or other strategic departments.  While individual employees may feel that their performance or efficiency increases through telecommuting, the performance of the company as a whole may actually decrease.

Effect of Face-to-Face Interaction on Innovation

So what does this have to do with the delivery of legal services, and in particular legal services pertaining to intellectual property?  Intellectual property is different from a lot of other areas of the law in that it is based mainly on federal statutes.  Most other areas of law are primarily based on state law.  State unauthorized practice of law rules generally limit the possible pool of attorneys that can represent a particular client.  If a lawsuit is filed in Colorado state court, for instance, it can only be tried by attorneys that are admitted to the Colorado Bar.

Because most intellectual property cases are based on federal laws, they are considered a nationwide practice.  Thus, an attorney in New York can represent a client in San Francisco for IP matters.  This fact has created many “firms” that advertise on a nationwide basis.  Oftentimes these firms offer cut rates and rely on a high-volume business model that offers only limited contact over email or the phone.

While we are big believers in technology and frequently employ it with our clients that live out of state or in remote parts of Colorado, nothing beats good old face-to-face interaction.  The spontaneous conversations that happen often lead to insights that help us represent our clients better.  Sometimes it’s the ability to manipulate and play with a prototype with the inventor present; other times it’s sitting down and listening to a few tracks of a musician’s CD, or even visiting a client’s business to understand their processes and how they do what they do.  Unfortunately, many times these intangibles cannot be communicated in a phone call, email or even over Skype. 

Recently, I was watching a local program on PBS that featured representatives from local wine and spirits companies.  They were commenting on how consumers in Colorado really get into the “buy locally” concept.  A representative from Shanahan’s Whiskey recounts seeing consumers pulling out bottle after bottle in a liquor store looking for one that was bottled by a specific individual or bottled while listening to specific bands. 

If people take such care in buying whiskey, why not take the same care in choosing a law firm to protect some of your companies most valuable assets?  The plain and simple truth is that while technology is great, it simply cannot replace actual human interactions.  Virtual law firms and out of state high volume legal service “mills” can offer a lower price point; however, they cannot offer the quality of representation that one gets when you meet face to face, and the client learns about the firm, and even more importantly, the firm learns the ins and outs of its client’s intellectual property.

While technology is a wonderful tool, there are some things it cannot replace:  The chance meeting at the water cooler that sparks a revolutionary idea, the impression left by someone’s office space, or the sweet sound of a note being played through an all tube guitar amp.  Some things just still need to be done the low tech way.