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Patent agents instead of patent lawyers, and other instances of para-professional substitutions

3M has steadily brought patent work in-house, according to Inside Counsel, Jan. 2010 at 43, shifting from about 65 percent of the work done inside to now more than 90 percent. At the same time, the department has “reduced the number of in-house patent lawyers by using patent agents with technical expertise for much of the work,” explains 3M’s general counsel.

Leveraging to para-professionals makes much sense for legal departments. Other categories of work that lend themselves to delegation to experienced members who don’t practice law include discovery and contracts. In the discovery mines, paralegals can handle a large portion of the work just as much as experienced contract managers can handle most of the contracts of a company. Contract managers and contract administrators, either within the legal function or without, show up here in several posts (See my post of March 18, 2005: separate contract managers from others; May 5, 2006: contract administrators and Convergys; Oct. 26, 2005: FMC has twice as many contract managers as lawyers; April 27, 2006: law firms can help with contracts administration; Dec. 8, 2006: contract managers and the evolution of matter management systems; July 3, 2007: NCR’s shared-service contract administrators; Aug. 19, 2007: seven contract managers at Scientific American; Nov. 7, 2007: Red Hat’s commercial contracting function of 10; and March 19, 2009: business units should designate contract coordinators.).

I should explicitly make a broader point: headcount should not be what general counsel have to abide by, but rather the total cost of their heads. If two people who don’t practice law cost less than half of what a lawyer costs, and can do almost as much, bring them on!

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