Welcome back to Beyond the Docket! This time we are back to interview Michael Atkins of Atkins Intellectual Property. Mike is an intellectual property attorney who, after working at a large firm in Seattle, now successfully runs a completely virtual practice. We talk about him taking his practice abroad as well as his love of teaching and his background speaking Spanish.
Tell us a bit about your legal practice. What type of work do you focus on?
I focus on trademarks and copyrights, including prosecution, advice, and litigation.
You practiced for over ten years at a larger firm, and are now in the 7th year of running your own practice. What made you want to start your own practice, and what been have some of the major differences between running your own firm and working at a larger law firm?
I left a great firm because I wanted the excitement of seeing whether I could make a solo practice work. I thought it’d be a great challenge to find my niche in the marketplace and run my own business. Fortunately, things worked out, and I discovered a secret: Being your own boss is awesome!
After a few years of working from my Seattle-based home office, I also began to wonder: Does anyone care if I’m working in Seattle, or somewhere else? So, I tested the waters by going to Buenos Aires for three months. It turns out, as long as I stayed in close contact and got the work done, no one cared.
Armed with that confidence, I later moved my home base to Mexico City for three years, and then to [Country Name Withheld Due to Lack of Work Visa], where my home base is today. I say “home base” because I still return to Seattle, where I have a home, whenever needed by clients or the court.
This setup isn’t something I would expect to fly at a bigger firm. There’s no need to show my face to higher-ups around the office, because there are no higher-ups, and the office is wherever I happen to be. As a solo, I’m also in charge of everything—from bookkeeping and banking to insurance and marketing. I was surprised to discover how much I enjoy the “business” part of the practice. When one part of my brain is tired of trademark filings (gasp!), and another is tired of litigation (gulp!), I can always turn to admin stuff for a break or make a virtual trip to the bank. The diversity of things needing doing keeps me engaged.
You work remotely and successfully operate a virtual firm. How do you manage that? What obstacles with that have you had to overcome? What advice would you give to other attorneys who are looking to transition into virtual practices?
It’s easier than it sounds. With email, a cell phone, Skype (both audio and video), and widespread acceptance—or even insistence on—electronic filings, working virtually isn’t all that different from working in a fancy office downtown. It’s just that my work location is flexible, and my overhead is lower, which means I see more client revenue at the end of the day.
As for advice, I’d think someone with a virtual solo office would want a good website. Without an accessible physical address, your home page is your storefront; it’s your first and sometimes only way to establish credibility with potential clients. Therefore, I try to make my website appear simple, smart, and confident.
Behind the scenes, I have a virtual mailroom vendor (Earth Class Mail) that opens my mail and sends me PDFs, and a virtual receptionist (Ruby Receptionists) who answers my phone. Both make being virtual and remote a lot easier.
Other than that, I’d mainly suggest having a backup computer, and storing files in the cloud. I have a backup cell phone and SIM card, too. Tech redundancy helps avoid panicky return trips to the States to fix something after the fact. I also have a great team of professionals in Seattle that can capably help when physical proximity matters. If something needs doing fast—or in person—having trusted boots on the ground is essential.
One obstacle to overcome as a solo, particularly on foreign soil, is keeping in touch with folks back home. Since you’re not likely to run into colleagues on the street, or in a CLE or bar association meeting, you need to make an effort to keep up. Technology makes it easy to do so. However, it still takes an effort. I’m always texting, emailing, or calling friends in the law for advice or just to catch up. It fights loneliness and helps me stay sharp. There may not be a physical office door to knock on, but there are plenty of folks to talk strategy with or test an idea. I lean on them, and they lean on me. There’s no need to leave relationships behind just because you work alone or far away.
In the end, I’d tell folks considering a change to life as a solo with a virtual practice to take the leap. It was a life-changing decision for me, and is one that I’m thankful I made.
You frequently present about and teach different IP issues. Have you always had a passion for teaching? What do you like about it compared with practicing law?
Teaching is at the heart of my practice. I’m always explaining something to someone, whether it’s a client, USPTO examiner, or judge. That’s not to say that I have all the answers. I certainly do not. But it sure helps to get everyone on the same page. The skills I learned teaching IP law at the University of Washington School of Law help me get there. Knowing that I have to present a new case or concept also means that I have to learn it thoroughly first. In that respect, teaching and making CLE presentations is forced learning. I learned more about trademark law in that first year of teaching—even though I sometimes was only a day ahead of my students. It was uncomfortable, but also exhilarating. I’ve always enjoyed helping people learn, even if I learned the subject matter myself just a short time earlier.
How long have you been studying Spanish? What was the motivation, and do you think it’s important for other Americans to learn a second or even third language? How does your Spanish help with your practice?
I started learning Spanish in high school. Continuing to study and practice keeps me humble. There is so much to learn, and I’m always making mistakes. But I can feel my mind stretching like when I do a crossword puzzle. Hopefully, it’ll keep me sharp when I get old(er). There’s also nothing like being in a Spanish-speaking country and being able to talk with the folks that live there. This is going to sound so Rick Steves (a fellow Seattle native), but it makes you much more of a traveler or resident than a tourist. I can’t recommend trying to learn a foreign language enough, even if you’re bad at it. Laughing at your mistakes breaks the ice and helps you feel part of a community, rather than just someone passing through. As for helping with my practice, I still only do business in English. However, living abroad and struggling with a foreign language certainly gives me empathy to those who call the States a foreign home, and English a foreign language.
Tell us more about your interest in loud music. What does that include?
My website says I like listening to loud music. That’s not particularly relevant to practicing law, but I thought saying so might be interesting. My office soundtrack usually is inspired by KEXP, a Seattle-based indy rock station. They are so smart and creative, I’m never short on new music. Because they stream online, I also get a little bit of the Seattle scene wherever I happen to be.
What is your law firm’s technology stack? Do you use Slack? Practice management software? Trademark management software?
I mainly use Westlaw for legal research, TM TKO and TESS/TSDR for USPTO research, and (obviously) Alt Legal for trademark portfolio management. I also plunder PACER for research in litigation. If a previous brief convinced my judge about an issue I’m working on, I want to learn why. As a solo, I don’t need fancy communication software. I like Office 365. I use Slack and Basecamp when working with groups. For timekeeping and billing, I use Freshbooks. For bookkeeping, it’s QuickBooks. The one unique app I can mention is Synchronize, which I have on my iPhone. It’s free and does just one thing: it coordinates time zones. I use it all the time to coordinate real-time meetings. I previously relied on counting hours and worried about joining calls an hour early or late. Not anymore.
If you could create any legal practice-focused technology, what would it be and why?
I love reading briefs. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have a book club that focuses on IP-oriented briefs and digs into how the writers tell the story, apply the facts to the law, and persuade, persuade, persuade. If I could create a legal practice-focused technology, it would make brief-reading more organized. Anyone can dig through PACER, but it’s harder to take a logical tour through the best briefs being written. There must be a practitioner, legal writing professor, or law librarian out there who curates great briefs in a blog. Sadly, however, I haven’t found it.