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Gone global

Almost all of their attorneys speak more than one language. Their internship program recruits largely from overseas. Several of their partners and associates spend much of the year abroad.

For the international IP firm of Alleman, Hall, McCoy, Russell and Tuttle, diversity isn’t a matter of principle, it’s a matter of business success. And success is something that has been in no short supply during the firm’s first two years.

The Portland, Ore., firm – which only came into existence in January 2005 – already handles patents held by the Ford Motor Co., Volvo, Land Rover, Infocus, Mattel, Kawasaki and Microsoft.

“It’s economically smart because we are trying to focus on international work,” said partner Mark Alleman. “We are doing this diversity thing because it makes money.”

Believing the largest potential for growth will come from Asia – nearly 40 percent of foreign patents come from Japan alone, according to the U.S. Patent Office – the firm has taken great pains to expand its client development across the Pacific, setting up offices in China and Japan. Even the firm’s website (www.ahmrt.com) has an option to be translated for Japanese viewers.

“The mission of the firm is to expand our international practice, and mostly that is driven by the desire of some of the partners,” said partner John D. Russell. “We also have personal reasons why we want to be overseas, and we try to bring those into the law firm as well.”

Alleman’s wife, a former patent translator herself, is Japanese, and he speaks the language fluently. He was formerly admitted to practice law in Japan as a “Gaikokuho Jimu Bengoshi” (foreign lawyer) and still spends several months a year counseling his Japanese clients.

Two other lawyers – Linna Chen and Amber Sun – were both born in China, speak Mandarin fluently and, not surprisingly, head up the firm’s Chinese practice.

Another partner, Christopher Tuttle, can communicate in Spanish, and Russell, though not fluent, can speak a great deal of German. Brian G. Forrest, one of the firm’s associates, is one of the very few Native American lawyers in the country specializing in patent litigation.

“Law firms don’t mirror their clients too often,” said Alleman. “If you go to an IT company and you look at who you meet with, you might be the only U.S. citizen in the room. Your average law firms are very gentrified.”

Alleman believes that since many overseas corporations feature bilingual employees, it only makes sense for their legal representation to reflect that diversity. Alleman spent four years living in Japan, renting space from a patent law firm and practicing alongside native Japanese patent attorneys.

The advantage it gives the firm, Alleman says, is the ability to spot details that might get lost in translation and have a devastating effect on a case. Alleman recalls a Chinese patent application draft in which a car “rolling to a stop” was translated as a car “rolling over and stopping.” Amber Sun, who was handling the application, was able to correct the translation.

From a business perspective, the ability to traverse the language barrier has given the firm a decided advantage over other U.S. patent boutiques.

“A Japanese client was dealing with another U.S. law firm, and had gone down a path of starting litigation,” said Russell. “But they felt like they were getting bad results and they asked us for a second look because we had someone in Japan who could talk to them in Japanese. We were able to take a higher-level view of what’s going on rather than just motions being filed and other [standard] lawyer work.”

International interns

In this same spirit, the firm has continually searched for interns from overseas. Last year, it hired three interns; one hailed from South Korea, and two were from Germany – a country that exports more patents than any other except Japan.

Currently, they employ one German intern and are looking for another in Japan.

The firm’s internship program has been beneficial to both sides. In order to obtain a law degree in Germany, students must have three months of legal training outside the country. While fulfilling this requirement, the firm’s German interns also get an opportunity to network with companies in their own country.

In return, the firm gains a liaison with a potential overseas client. By working daily with the young interns, members of the firm also gain a deeper understanding of the cultures of many of their most valued clients.

“Our interns, like the rest of the firm, understand the client’s needs and how we may meet their needs,” said Russell. “You don’t want to find yourself not caring about something the client does care about because you’re just doing your lawyer work.”

The strategy certainly seems to be producing a great deal of success. Last March, the publication IP Today named Alleman Hall the largest new IP boutique firm in the country based on the number of patents issued.

A bold move

The five founding partners, Alleman, Russell, Tuttle, Anna McCoy and M. Matthews Hall, were working together at a more established boutique firm in Portland when they decided to start their own practice.

“We wanted to have lawyers working together more,” said Russell. “At most law firms, each individual manages a book and they don’t really [interact].”

While most firms assign one attorney to act as a contact with a client and another to handle the work and associates, Russell’s firm encourages two attorneys working with one another at all times, even when visiting a client across the country – or in some cases, across the ocean.

This approach has given them options when faced with staff shortages. All five partners are under the age of 40 and have taken time off for the birth of a child.

Russell cites an example where he went on paternity leave and was still able to manage a major corporate client with the help of Tuttle and fellow attorney Jason Creasman.

Many of the firm’s clients, both domestic and overseas, were inherited from their original practice, predominantly their Japanese roster. But the partners agree that to stay competitive, they have to keep the window open for new clients.

“We have to have our eye on client development,” said Russell. “We can’t sit on our laurels and hope clients call us because we haven’t been here for 50 years.”

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: justin.rebello@lawyersusaonline.com