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Auto counsel give tips on IP department integration

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At this year’s Autolex forum, IP counsel at Honda, Uber, Bosch and AGC Automotive revealed how they add the most value within their businesses

With the advancement and use of technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence, intellectual property is becoming more important to automotive companies – and it’s vital, therefore, that IP departments take a more central and integrated role in their businesses.

At Managing IP’s Autolex forum last week, in-house counsel revealed that the best way to achieve that integration is to treat the legal and IP departments as customer service functions.

“Firstand foremost, the legal department really is a customer service function that’s there to service the business,” said Chris Storm, legal director of emerging technologies at Uber in Pennsylvania. “I’m a big believer in that if you provide good experience and customer service to the rest of the teams in your company, that’s how you get repeat customers.”

He added that being a good customer service function can be challenging at Uber because the businesses hires from many different industries, and each one has a different expectation of how legal should engage and be involved.

“It is very different hiring from automotive or aerospace than it is from tech and app development,” he said. “You’ve got some clients who want legal to get out of the way, want to launch products quickly and are not used to that kind of oversight, and some who are used to legal being more involved.

“How do you create a tailored service for these different teams to give them the level of support they need but also the level of support they expect? It’s a balancing act.”

Business enablers

Daniel Warsh, legal counsel at Bosch in Detroit, added his perspective. He argued that attorneys are risk communicators – but that this function can give lawyers a bad reputation if it’s not balanced with a drive to find solutions too.

“People might think that we’re a cost and not adding value, and that we’re really just there to spoil the fun,” he said.

“We have to understand what our clients and customers are looking for. They’re not looking for us to tell them that they can’t do something – they’re looking for solutions and for us to come to them and offer alternative solutions when a particular course of action might not be viable.”

He added that it’s important for legal and IP departments to shed the mentality of being ‘no people’, and start proactively finding ways to convince their non-legal colleagues that they’re there to help them do business in a compliant and legal way.

That mindset change can be spurred by the department’s physical proximity to the business’s engineers. Mark Duell, senior corporate counsel for Honda in Ohio, pointed out that his firm has demonstrated a commitment to IP by creating a specialist unit that is separate and distinct from its legal department.

That unit is based in the research and development facility in North America, which gives it unparalleled access to the engineers.

“They can feel free to come to us with their IP issues directly,” he noted.

“That access that we have helps to make sure that we can get everything covered that we need to cover. You might not be able to put the whole legal department in the R&D facility, but you can certainly put your IP lawyers there because it’s really helpful.”

Reaching out

One panellist was keen to point out that while IP departments should act as a customer service function, that shouldn’t lead lawyers to sit around and wait for requests.

Eric Rogers, IP counsel and market strategy leader at AGC Automotive in Detroit, said: “All too often, legal departments can get a bit complacent and just act as a receiver department. They receive requests, turn the wheel, and then the output goes back to the group or customer that requested it.

“But that can be inefficient because you’re not so well connected to the business or the other groups you are serving. Perhaps you don’t know the background issues. So just because you’re a customer service function, don’t let that stop you from being an outreach agent.”

He added that counsel should work to understand what the business’s goals are and sit in on some of the departmental meetings, including product development, R&D and marketing, to help them really understand their colleagues’ day-to-day issues.

“That can help improve efficiency because you don’t have to take all that time and educate yourselves on every discreet issue.

“People might be hesitant to reach out if they know that when they send off a request to legal, they might get some feedback that misses some critical business points.

“As such, building those relationships can really help with the willingness of those groups to come to legal.”

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