In our first IP Leaders Corner interview, Gwilym Roberts talks about his role as the Chair of Kilburn & Strode, client and firm management, corporate social responsibility, recent developments in the firm and industry, and the future of IP law and practice.
I still don’t think of myself as a lawyer! I took things one step at a time; having chosen Physics as a degree, it seemed like I had to think about a job. My careers advisor suggested either patents or trying my hand as a salesman for a regional brewery. I’ve never looked back.
After interviewing in a couple of places, I trained at Abel & Imray for whom I still hold a strong affection. Getting into the profession was easier then as it wasn’t so well known, though I coincidentally had French and German O levels (languages were considered very important then) and had always loved wordplay so it did suit me. The challenges were all about focussing on a demanding career as a very silly 20 something in London. I got away with it.
I qualified in 1995 and had my first son pretty much simultaneously; it was time to stop being silly and I felt that was best done by turning over a new leaf. Kilburn & Strode took me on and I recall appearing on my first day with a serious expression and a briefcase. It took a while for them to see through my skilful masquerade.
As Chair, I work incredibly closely with the incomparable Richard Howson, our managing partner. My roles are chairing our partners’ various leadership meetings and making sure we have a voice and a presence in the larger IP world. Richard does all the difficult stuff.
A firm is as good as its partnership is happy. This is underpinned by a successful business, which Richard makes sure of; I continue to learn how important it is on top of that to make sure that our partners can get their job done, enjoy it, and continue to inspire the firm. I’m part of a fantastic partnership which makes it easy, and I think we all feel we’re in the right place.
Internally, playing a part in a business where the whole firm is excited about our future is a joy. And I cherish time with all of my colleagues, especially when they put my job title to one side. Externally, it is reassuring to hear that the patent profession has some control over its destiny, and fulfilling to contribute to that. I also still really love the day job, when I’m allowed to do it.
Our wise NED says “you need to build your own room on the house.” Whether your firm is large or small, as a partner you make a vital contribution; you need to be able to express what that is. And think to yourself, “I might have an impressive job title one day when a pandemic suddenly hits. What would I do?” You never know what might get thrown at you.
Reasoned optimism is a good one. A willingness to communicate much more than you are used to, with everyone. An acceptance that there will be stressful moments you can’t step away from – but a realisation that you’ll be part of a team when that happens who will be there with you. And a bit of bounce goes a long way.
Put yourself in the shoes of a leader you admire. Say yes to stuff you can probably do and keep developing. Find a leader and ask them what it’s like – people don’t often do that in my experience, and both parties will learn from it. They were you once.
Join it, it’s awesome. Send CVs everywhere, get your foot in the door, and you’re sorted. Just don’t be silly when you actually get the job – it is quite a challenging first few years.
I think the most important thing is to remember that our clients are people – real, actual humans. Everyone has their own likes and needs and, most importantly, their own challenges. Our job is to get to know our clients as people and to understand their world from their viewpoint. By doing that, we can act much more like a trusted advisor – ‘virtual’ in-house counsel, if you like – rather than in an arms-length relationship.
One question we often ask is, ‘what’s the commercial strategy here?’ Once we know that, we can give IP advice to help our client further that strategy.
Knowing that are clients are human also means we think about every interaction with them in those terms. We want them to leave every touchpoint – every phone call, email exchange, visit to our office, cup of coffee (you should see our coffee machines) – with a really good, positive experience.
We also try to bring a human side to the events we run – we want these to be relevant and valuable, but we want them to be fun too.
2. In your experience, what key factors do big corporate clients consider when choosing a firm for IP work and to what extent do they differ from what SMEs would look for?
The big clients have their own internal systems, metrics and burdens and it is just as important to fit to these as it is to offer the core IP expertise. Our offering tends to be more focussed for the big players – this means that we can identify efficiencies and process improvements for them. These days they push us to enhance our CSR, a challenge which fits with our own vision of what the firm should be like.
With SMEs, we find ourselves acting much more like external in-house counsel, handling a wide range of IP-related issues.
3. How would you describe the culture in your firm?
In a word: progressive. I mean that in the sense that we’re always looking to move forward, to change, to improve. We like to be the first in our sector to try new things. We are, of course, a firm of patent and trade mark attorneys and so we’re not too ‘out there’, but we like to lead in our world.
Some good examples are: our San Francisco liaison office that brings our European attorneys closer to our clients in the Bay area; a website focussed on thought leadership, not ‘us’; sabbatical programme for all staff; mental health first-aiders; year-round commitment to inclusion, not just in Pride month; and our own charitable foundation.
4. If you have corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in your firm, please briefly tell us about one or two of them, why you have them, and the impact or achievement(s)
This is one that I and colleagues love to talk about. Three years ago, we set up something called Innovation for All. It’s a charitable foundation that sees us give 1% of all profit each year to charity. We ask colleagues around the firm to nominate charities.
The shortlisted charities are invited to make an application for funding, and then the firm votes for three which we’ll support over the next year. The theme recently has been ‘technology for good’. One example this year is that we’ve partnered with a charity in London tackling knife crime.
Everyone in the firm also has one ‘CSR Day’ that they can take during the year to spend volunteering. Recent days have been spent helping the homeless or giving community spaces a makeover.
1. How did your firm deal with the COVID-19 pandemic to minimise its impact on your clients and business?
We were already well set up before the pandemic took hold. We went paperless three years ago, and so all our files were accessible electronically. We were also already comfortable with colleagues working in an agile way and remotely one day a week.
To do that, we provided all colleagues with laptops and replaced desk phones with voice and video calls from our laptops. The transition to full-scale remote working was therefore pretty smooth and we were able to avoid any negative impact on our clients. In some cases, all those Zoom calls actually brought us closer together.
Since the pandemic hit, we’ve also kept thinking about innovation. We keep looking for and experimenting with technology that will help in a virtualor hybrid world. We launched a new IP management software this summer and have upgraded our physical meeting rooms while we’ve all been at home.
2. As Chair what were the key challenges and lessons during the pandemic?
The main challenge has been at a human level. I think it’s just been really difficult for people. For some it might have been feeling lonely at home on your own, or stuck in a cramped house-share. For others, it’s the challenge of trying to work while looking after small children. All different, but all challenging.
One of the lessons has been the extraordinary way in which people responded. I think we saw real resilience, kindness and leadership right across the firm during the pandemic. We also saw a lot of good humour and optimism too, which I think is so important.
Colleagues were exceptional in looking out for each other, in staying connected with each other and our clients, and in all the well-being initiatives we had running across the firm. I think the lesson is that humans, even when faced with such a monumental challenge, can be truly extraordinary. My colleagues have my complete admiration for that.
3. Could you please share up to three positive highlights or developments in your firm in the past 18 months?
Firstly, central to our plan for thriving during the pandemic was our #Stay campaign. This was a programme of comms, events, articles and initiatives all aimed at helping us stay productive, connected and well while we were remote. It was developed at the leadership level, but made a success by all colleagues across the firm.
We had virtual watercooler catch-ups, country walks, drinks recipes, food recipes, personal insights, exercise tips, external talks from well-being experts. We even had our own virtual pub every Friday night: The Staying Inn.
Another positive development was several key hires in the firm. We were able to remain on a positive growth trajectory throughout a very challenging year. We opened a second office in the Netherlands, with some great hires across several industries and sectors.
Thirdly, we’re making great strides in achieving our inclusion and diversity goals. Four out of our five most recent partners hires were women, and we see that as just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Looking ahead, to what extent do you think the pandemic will affect how law firms or IP firms operate?
The pandemic is going to affect the firms that try to go back to pre-pandemic ways, and those that embrace the astonishing shift we’ve seen will take the good bits of it. Like all big transitions, I think firms that adapt rather than resist will thrive.
Flexible working, different work-life balance, acceptance of remote interaction as a large part of the day job, and diminution of the importance of location will continue.
The challenge will be to adopt all these changes without losing the spirit and culture of the firm. As long as you go into the transition knowing that these must be maintained, you’ll solve that problem.
2. Have you noticed interesting trends in the IP market in your jurisdiction and/or region?
It’s all a bit more difficult than it used to be. The EPO remains the best patent office in the world for quality, but just at the moment it seems a little fixated on legalistic rather than technical issues.
We spend too much time talking about amendments and not enough about inventions. Our clients are asking us more and more to focus on where we add value, and the need for efficiency and continuous improvement is paramount.
On the other hand, innovation has never had such a high profile as the economic driver. We are an essential part of that and firms willing to change and develop to match the modern ways of working will thrive.
3. What are the key challenges and opportunities in the next decade for firms in your jurisdiction and/or region?
The world needs to keep recognising that the IP system is a fair and pragmatic channel for stimulating and sharing innovation. There is always anti-patent rhetoric around, and the system isn’t perfect, but it is perfectly aligned with human nature, as a century of improvement has shown.
We need to use the present wave of negative sentiment to keep that improvement going. For K&S, we are about to open our Boston office to replicate the amazing efforts of Freddie and the team in San Francisco!
4. What is your top priority for next year?
We have always been a proudly European firm and this is more important than ever post-Brexit. Our burgeoning Netherlands office already has a wonderful, well-established team there and we intend to carry on proactively with that growth.
Two big ones spring to mind. The UK has announced its innovation strategy and places it firmly at the centre of the UK’s economic plan. We have the best IP experts in the world and I want to ensure that we are at the centre of both planning and delivering the outcome.
The other is more personal. The profession is committed to improving its diversity, led by IP Inclusive’s inspirational efforts. I have been involved in tutoring for The Access Project charity, sharing my rusty physics with GCSE students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
My dream is to match the huge scientific skill base in the profession with initiatives like this as a great way of improving diversity.
Sashimi and rugby.
I was educated in Hong Kong and still consider it my home.
Gwilym Roberts is a European and UK patent attorney who specialises in telecoms and physics work, including lasers, optics, and medical device. He was appointed as the Chair of Kilburn & Strode in 2016.
The IP Leaders Corner is a new interview series featuring the intellectual property practice leaders in IP firms and general law firms. In the interviews, our guests share insights into client and firm management strategy, corporate social responsibility, recent developments in their firms and industry, and the future of IP law and practice. In addition to practice insights, you learn more about their career in IP and life outside work.