Stobbs IP (Pty) Limited
You have bachelor’s degrees in art history and mathematics. At what point did a career in law become your goal, and what was it about trademark law in particular that attracted you?
I studied these degrees after I had already started my legal career (I have always loved learning new things). I fell into a career in trademarks after completing my first degree in law. At that time, I was not certain about it being what I really wanted to do. However, the combination of the creativity associated with brands and marketing, the analytical skills needed for the legal side of the work, and the fact that this area of law is inextricably linked with human psychology and the changing world of modern markets soon grabbed me.
What led you to establish your own firm and what tips would you offer to others considering the same?
I was lucky enough to train at a great firm – Boult Wade Tennant. However, as I began to understand the world of trademarks and my clients, I felt that simpler, more practical solutions on a wider range of issues relating to brands, provided in a more cost-effective and transparent way, were what we should be providing. It became apparent that it was not possible to do this in a traditional patent and trademark firm or an IP law firm. Therefore, I needed to create my own firm.
Establishing your own firm is not just about being a lawyer. You must think through all that is involved and be honest about whether your personality suits this route in terms of risk and approach.
The firm has positioned itself as providing services for the entire brand lifecycle, from creation and enforcement to online presence, licensing and intelligence. How does the team ensure that it is at the forefront of service provision when spanning multiple focus areas?
We are a brand advisory firm established with the aim of providing practical and commercial solutions in the field of branding. We do this by advising on difficult IP issues in a clear and simple fashion, as well as in a transparent and cost-effective way. In order to provide proper practical advice, we must understand our clients, and we can only do this by spending time with them and getting as integrated as possible in the in-house team. We can only do that if we do not behave like a traditional law firm.
We are a niche company. We do not have the aspiration to become a general practice law firm because there is still a place for real experts. As we have developed (we now have more than 100 employees, including approximately 50 attorneys and 25 paralegals) and listened to our clients’ issues around brands, we have realised that the traditional approach to legal services does not work in this space. We have found that people do not generally want esoteric legalese; they want clear and simple advice. They do not want options; they want clear recommendations based on knowledge of the law and practical application. Finally, they want certainty and transparency of cost. This led us to realise that the world of trademarks and intellectual property needs a rethink.
Stobbs takes a holistic and strategic approach and an imaginative and practical application of the law to enable creativity and commercial success. We want to become the world’s leading brand advisory company. To achieve this, we cannot just focus on answering legal questions. We have an unrivalled breadth of expertise and we are continuing to innovate and grow where the only extremes are the limits of our clients’ brands.
This breadth puts us in a category of our own – an offering designed specifically to meet the needs of the in-house legal counsel on brand management and intellectual property. We call our category intangible asset management, which requires the skills of an attorney and a solicitor, an intimate knowledge of business, a passion for brands and practical problem-solving skills. These skills differentiate us from our competitors.
We have a wide offering. We believe that it is difficult to truly understand clearance, trademark filing and portfolio management without being an expert on litigation and commercial exploitation, and vice versa. It is this holistic approach which enables us to optimise brand value for clients. We have a deep understanding of the issues facing global brands. Our capacity for tailoring a strategy to fit particular markets and territories is a stand-out feature.
As we have grown, we have developed deep expertise in every area that we cover – either through focus and training or acquisition. We ensure that we have experts with strong knowledge of individual areas; we are not arrogant enough to think that all of us can be experts in all areas. However, rather than seeing this breadth as a possible weakness, our view is that without it you cannot be an effective adviser on brands. Our understanding of wider areas of the brand lifecycle improves our offerings on more core areas relating to trademarks. Indeed, we feel that it is impossible to provide the highest level of advice without a proper understanding of these wider offerings.
How are client demands changing, and what effect has this had on the management of your practice?
Clients are increasingly demanding fast, practical and cost-effective advice. They want value and service provided on their terms.
We characterise ourselves as a virtual in-house team. The idea is that we have the range of expertise of an external private practice firm but operate as if we are part of the team. Accessibility, integration, internal knowledge, clarity and simplicity of advice, transparency of costs (including things that encourage more contact such as free meetings and calls and all-encompassing retainers) all contribute to this unique approach. Our whole approach is designed to be client focused and to meet these developing demands.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the major upcoming challenges for trademark owners and, by extension, their expert advisers in the coming years?
Intellectual property has become more important over the past two decades. No longer the domain of tech companies only, it is something that all businesses worry about and, according to recent studies, can make up approximately 80% of capital value in successful businesses.
Even members of the public are used to hearing the term intellectual property and know it is important. Business leaders certainly know that it is something they cannot ignore. Yet it is still an area that is often not well understood.
Increasingly crowded markets make any competitive advantage through innovation, know-how and confidential information more important. They also make brands and reputation more important to consumers and therefore more valuable. However, constant globalisation, access to online marketplaces and reducing the costs of manufacture are making it easier to copy brands, as well as providing more opportunities for businesses.
All of this provides increasing challenges for those charged with managing a business’s intellectual property. There is pressure to deal with it well because it is a high-profile issue. Moreover, it is not well understood internally and is seen as a cost centre; therefore, budgets can be challenging. However, the proliferation of issues online, coupled with the fact that many businesses are dealing with issues all over the world, make it very difficult to have the time or the detailed expertise to manage intellectual property effectively.
Linked to that, what are your main priorities for your firm’s development over the next five years?
We want to become better at what we do, broaden our offering around brand advice and solutions, and be able to do so in increasingly accessible and cost-effective ways. Development and utilisation of systems will play a key role in this development, especially to enable better, quicker and more cost-effective services.
How different do you think future trademark practice will be – and how can law firm practitioners prepare now?
No one knows what the future holds. The only thing we can be certain about is that things will be different, and that some of these changes will not be what anyone expects. Law firms must embrace change and be open minded. We must understand that high fees for basic things will not survive and must see past them to other approaches. The key to preparation will be to be open minded about what it means to be a lawyer.
AI has been a big talking point over the past year – what effect do you feel it will have on trademark practice?
Everyone is talking about how technology will affect the provision of legal services. No doubt it will put more pressure on justifiable costs in legal service, especially for repetitive tasks.
We already embrace technology. Use of third-party technology is an essential part of being able to provide access to portfolio data for our clients, provide domain management services, conduct cost-effective searches and provide good online brand enforcement services. Part of our offering is to be an expert on what is available in our space in order to pass those benefits on to our clients.
We know that the world is not standing still, and we are investing in three different areas from a system perspective, which are all designed to make more aspects of what we do accessible and cost effective. We are looking forward to rolling out some of these developments over the next 12 months and improving our offerings further still.
Which case has been your most memorable and why?
Cases are memorable for different reasons, including interesting legal issues, personalities and profiles. I have been lucky enough to be involved in many memorable cases. However, if I was to choose one, it would be a UK matter relating to the mark DR NO because I had access to behind-the-scenes information about James Bond.
The online world is a focus for your firm and one key mechanism, the UDRP, is due for review. In terms of the range of available online rights protection mechanisms, are there any changes that you would like to see?
The online world is poorly understood. My view is that, with the right guidance and strategy, the tools exist for brand owners to navigate this world effectively.
The UDRP is an excellent tool but it is often used for tasks that it was not intended for. I do not agree with how data protection has been applied to ownership information for domain names, and I hope that we can quickly get to a point where it becomes easier to obtain suitable information about domain name owners for brand protection purposes. It should not be a right to be able to hide online.
What qualities make for an elite-level lawyer, and how can they be better developed?
Legal knowledge is fundamental. But to be great in this space you need to be able to think creatively, explain things simply and clearly, and be practical and commercial. It is essential to be able to listen and understand alternate points of view and to be flexible enough in your approach to adapt your own position. Some of these things can be trained. Wider understanding of people and businesses and how they work can be trained. However, some of these skills are less easy to learn or develop.
Finally, if you were to give one piece of advice to practitioners starting their career in intellectual property, what would it be?
Keep learning. This is not a field where you qualify and then you have made it. Learn something every day. Look to develop and move forward constantly.