We’re not lawyers, we’re vendors

  • Service providers, including software companies, consultants and accountants, have many of the tools to meet clients’ needs
  • Increasingly, service providers will be competing with law firms
  • Firms will have to decide when to cooperate and when to compete

Competition is not something that trademark practitioners always welcome with open arms. Over the past few years, many firms have felt the impact of new competitors, including low-cost agencies and technology service providers. “For the first time in my career, I’m not enjoying it,” says the head of one firm, adding: “It’s not fun at the moment.” Another contends: “We’re not lawyers anymore, we’re vendors.”

In a business that has long been based on charging standard fees for particular services, trademark prosecution firms are vulnerable to competitors simply viewing their published fees and under-cutting them by, say, 10%. At least one firm says that it no longer publishes its fees for that very reason.

The bad news is that such competitors are set to increase. Using technology tools, outsourcing or cheap labour, service providers will be able to offer services at far lower rates than law firms, particularly general law firms which have high billing targets for lawyers. Other companies, such as logo design houses and graphic designers, may also offer trademark protection to clients. Many of these new entrants will not be legal firms in the traditional sense, but service providers which are efficient at handling large volumes of routine work. Think about the services that domain name registrars (or will providers) offer now and apply that to trademarks.

In short, it will be impossible to compete with such providers on cost. One option is to compete on quality and value – and we look at how to do that later on. It may also mean making some tough decisions: as one European practitioner said, it may simply not be profitable to take on work, particularly if it requires large upfront investment by the law firm. That will mean having to do something that lawyers tend to find distasteful: turning away work.

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