We met with Laura West, CEO of Springbird. Before setting up Springbird, Laura worked as Head of IP at boutique law firm Stephenson Law.
RH- How did you get to Springbird?
LW – It has been a long old path, but I guess it started whilst I was at Stephenson Law. I came across Alice Stephenson (founder of Stephenson Law) on my LinkedIn feed, constantly identifying issues within the legal field; the structure of law firms, time recording, lack of female leadership and an ability for lawyers to be themselves or be ‘human’. This coincided with growing frustrations within my previous role and with every post, I felt like she was reading my mind! I therefore approached her about setting up an IP team within the firm and we hit it off straight away. Fast forward 2 years and I had managed to grow that department to a team of 5, with some absolutely amazing clients, a unique subscription product and with us being identified as a challenger in the industry. This formed the basis for us separating out the IP business into a newly formed (and differently branded) entity, targeting our slightly different client base, and with me taking up the reigns of managing the business and pushing it forward.
RH- From the outside, Springbird looks very different from a typical law firm.
LW- My aim with Springbird was to create a legal brand that stood out, but that also showed our clients that not only do we understand how to protect their brands, we also understand the value of brand. I really felt it needed to speak to our clients and show everyone that we are changing things up, doing things differently, and practicing what we preach.
RH – You are active on LinkedIn. One of your posts that resonated with us was about the problems with billable hours. Tell us more.
LW – There are so many things wrong with the billable hours model as it stands; I found it a real problem in my previous roles. As a trade mark attorney, you do lots of different ‘types’ of work and many of them can justifiably be described as ‘paper pushing’; it's administrative, it’s process-driven and you're just managing documents and deadlines. Conversely, some of it adds real value: you're providing strategic advice, preventing infringement, overcoming legal issues, pursuing proceedings, conducting litigation, etc.
There is such a huge range of work, yet clients are paying the same rate for everything. And I could see that it was pissing clients off. Like, why did I just pay £450/hour for you to effectively regurgitate some advice from overseas, or to docket a deadline in the system and send a standard letter?
I think the level of administration that is involved in trade mark management isn't necessarily there for a lot of other areas of legal work, and I could see why clients would get annoyed about it. Equally, even if you move to the fixed fee model, I saw attorneys offer a fixed rate and then just manipulate their billable hours to meet the fee, which kind of defeats the purpose.
You then have the issues from a team management and morale perspective; incentivizing staff by billable hours targets just encourages all the wrong behaviours, for clients and for the team. People won’t leave their desks for fear of missing an hours’ time recordal and individuals get rewarded for hogging work and overburdening themselves, affecting client service.
You then have the joys of staged billing; most firms will charge a fee upfront for filing, a fee at publication, a fee at registration, and a fee at renewal. All of these fees were reasonably low value invoices being charged at various different intervals. To me, they were all reasonably predictable, assuming that the rights proceeded in the way that you thought they would.
I used to find that we spent so much time processing these tiny invoices, we'd then get queries back from clients because they didn't know what it was for and why they'd received it. Then you’d spend time answering the queries about the invoices, and have to answer why they're paying an hourly rate for something that seems administrative. I felt like the whole system was broken and it wasn't good for the clients. It wasn't nice for me as a lawyer to have to constantly justify myself and our way of operating.
RH - So you took a different approach?
I decided why don't we just streamline it all and just agree a fee for that basic management that clients think is acceptable and provides value? It acts as an incentive for us to make sure we get the rights through as quickly as we possibly can and in the most efficient way and clients know where they stand. We charge one fee at the outset and don't have to worry about 150 invoices throughout the year (including chasing them up) and our clients get certainty, transparency and access. It takes away the uncomfortable element of the relationship and lets us create really close relationships with our client, with no clock ticking. That’s why we offer a subscription.
RH – I see this is a classic win/win?
LW - I think so. For us, it gives us a level of certainty in terms of revenue and cashflow from a business perspective, just as it gives the client certainty from a budgeting perspective. As long as you're making sure the fee is fair and representative, that we're making a profit on the service we provide, and that the client feels like they're getting value, it works.
I also think we're being a lot more open and transparent about the way that we deliver the services and the prices that we charge, and clients see value in that.