In today’s episode, Jim and Tyson chat with, William Woodford! They dive into the journey of creating a next-generation law firm that challenges the status quo. If you’re interested in learning more about leaving big law, the high-value things in your firm, and the potential future of law, check out this week’s episode.
William is an IP lawyer with 20 years of experience handling high-stakes litigation. Recently, he won a $31M jury verdict for his client in a patent infringement case. William uses his litigation experience to provide cutting-edge counseling on a variety of other issues, such as patent portfolio evaluation, development, and management, IP licensing, technology commercialization, and strategies for avoiding disputes.
Before founding Avantech Law in 2021, William was a principal at Fish & Richardson. He co-founded Fish’s contingent fee practice and was an elected member of the firm’s finance committee for eight years. He is known as a leader in creative fee arrangements, especially for start-ups and small companies that require flexibility and certainty.
2:10 Fish and Richardson
5:51 leaving big law
9:17 maximize what you can get
13:17 take two different approaches
17:17 big opportunity for boutiques
21:01 more desire for different types of fee arrangements
Jim’s Hack: A couple of good questions to ask. The first one is from Dan Sullivan, asking if you were sitting here today three years from now what would have to have happened for you to feel like you’ve made progress? The other is from Jerry Colonna, who wrote the book Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, asking, how have I been complicit in creating the conditions that I say I don’t want? Third, Nancy Kline, who wrote The Promise That Changes Everything, which asks, what might you be assuming that is stopping you?
William’s Tip: With the resistance to change, there are a lot of assumptions that go with that; whether you’re a big company or small company, don’t be locked into what the industry puts in front of you. Think outside the box!
Tyson’s Tip: During your weekly huddle or meeting, choose one person in your firm to have all the other people say one nice thing about them.
Watch the podcast here.
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Transcript: Building Something Different w/ William Woodford
Jim Hacking: Welcome back to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast. I’m Jim Hacking.
Tyson Mutrux: And I’m Tyson Mutrux. What’s up, Jim?
Jim: Well, Tyson, I’m excited. Tomorrow, I’m going to leave the house around three o’clock, pick up Noor from school, and we’re heading to Kansas City for a softball tournament. And we’re going to stop off in Columbia, on the way, to have dinner with you guys.
Tyson: That’s right. Lucky you. Luckiest day of your life.
Jim: Oh, man.
Tyson: You have Shakespeare’s Pizza. I mean, they have vegan cheese now, by the way. So, we can go there. We can have a full cheese pizza and enjoy it. And– yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Last time you came in, it was just you. You had– it was you– I don’t know. Was it my full family or was it just a few of us?
Jim: It was all you guys. I think Yusuf came one time, too. So, we’ve done this a couple of times.
Tyson: Yeah, it’s fun. I always enjoy those so I’m looking forward to it.
Jim: Well, do you want to go ahead and introduce our guest?
Tyson: I absolutely do.
We have William Woodford which I always think of Woodford when it comes to Bourbon, so instantly, I think Woodford Bourbon. But we have William Woodford. He’s an IP lawyer with 20 years of experience handling high stakes litigation. Recently, he won a $31‑million jury verdict for his client in a patent infringement case. William uses his litigation experience to provide cutting edge counseling on a variety of other issues such as patent portfolio evaluation, development and management, IP licensing, technology commercialization, and strategies for avoiding disputes.
William, that’s a hell of an intro, welcome to show.
William: Thanks so much for having me.
Jim: So, William, go ahead and tell us about your journey – where you started. I have the sense that you sort of came from big law and now you’re on your own. So, why don’t you talk to our listeners about sort of what’s happened over time since you finished law school, 20 years ago?
So, yeah, out of law school, I started working at Fish & Richardson which is maybe the largest IP firm in the country. I was there mostly doing patent litigation, I think, for the 18 or so years I was there – a lot of work for plaintiffs, a lot of work under alternative fee arrangements, usually high stakes cases. And so, yeah, I did that for nearly 20 years.
And then, you know, within the last, I guess about a year ago, now, I decided the opportunity was there and the time was right to launch my own firm. So, I did that. And, now, I’m a year in and it’s going really well, so.
Tyson: So, I love this portion in this survey that you filled out for us and you said, “I founded Avantech Law–” hopefully, I’m saying that right, ”–to build something different. My goal is to create a next‑generation law firm that challenges the status quo.” So, tell us about that. What does that mean? That’s awesome.
William: Yeah. And there are several components to it. So, I think, you know— so, first of all, there’s– if you look at the industry and, you know, I started practicing in around just early 2000s, the technology that I had, you know, how I went about my day, largely, 20 years later was unchanged. And if you kind of look around at every other industry, it’s sort of the legal industry is the odd one out. I mean, there’s– everything’s moving, you know. And, certainly, there were advances in communication, you know, using Zoom. I mean, that was kind of the big thing. Could lawyers work remotely, you know? So, that’s kind of the, you know, very monumental in this space, to be able to work remotely. But, really, there’s a whole lot more out there that can be incorporated into the practice. And the goal would be, there’s a lot of like high volume, especially in litigation, high‑volume, low‑impact tasks that really, ideally, you could get technology to do much of that work. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it can do a lot of those things and really kind of push your practice into focusing on the things that really matter. You know, the high value things that move the needle. So, that was one huge aspect.
Another was the pandemic created an opportunity. You know, the idea of the law firm in the big offices and the space. And that’s really kind of like your face to your clients. That changed.
And I think, you know, clients, you know, really, no longer expect that. And, really, there are other things that they would rather invest in because they’re paying for all of that indirectly. And so—
And, really, the pandemic provided the opportunity and I think a lot of law firms would do it, if they could, to essentially really blow up your overhead structure, and start over, and build it from the ground up. You know, different types of space, different, you know, working environments, different technology platforms that you get locked into as a firm that you have to, you know, stay with for 20 years. Whereas, you know, I can start from scratch, get the latest technology, and run with it. So, those were, you know, a couple of big things.
And then, the third is really, you know, I’ve been sort of in this alternative fee pricing kind of arena for a long, long time and that really hasn’t moved much. And I think, you know, with the inflation concerns, and the wars over talent in the legal industry, something’s going to give there. And I think that, finally, after maybe, you know, 50 – 60 years, there’s a big opportunity there as well.
Tyson: Hey, Jim, I want to say something to you. I want you to think about something. Like, what if you took a couple of thousand dollars that you’d spend on rent every month to just developing the workspaces of remote employees? Like, how cool would that be? Like, their spaces would be legit?
Tyson: Just my two cents.
Jim: Yeah, I’ll think about that.
William, talk to us about that seed of going out on your own and leaving big law. How did the seed get started? And then, how did you water the seed? And how did it grow into you actually going out on your own last year?
William: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s– like some of the things I mentioned – the technology, the, you know, inability to really– you know, big law firm is kind of like an aircraft carrier, you know, trying to turn, you know, it just takes miles, and miles, and miles to do it. In big law, there’s always conflict space issues, where partners, you know, you all have to share, you know, if you have 5000 – 6000 clients, it can be very difficult to figure out how to generate new business and bring that in.
And so, you know, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of benefits, I guess, to being in big law. There’s– you know, you can focus on doing work. You’ve got staff to do all sorts of things. But there’s a cost, you know, in terms of bringing in clients. And, really, rates were another huge issue. You know, I have a lot of small‑ or medium‑sized companies. They’re my favorite to work with because you get to get integrated into the business. You interact with the business folks, the leaders of the company, but the rates that, you know, we charge in big law are– really, it was impossible to do that. So that’s one big shift that’s happened since I’ve left. I can restructure my rates and work with these companies that are far– I mean, don’t get me wrong, the biggest companies in the world, they do exciting stuff, too, but it’s just there’s something unique about being part of a smaller organization and you feel like you have a much bigger impact on [inaudible 00:07:14].
Tyson: I wonder how you compete with the whole perception that more expensive means better and bigger means better. So, how do you deal with that part of things?
William: I mean, I think it helps that I’ve done that. I’ve been there for a long time, so I know exactly– like I know what— you know, and won huge cases and, you know, in the litigation context, I know what it takes to win. I know the resources that are necessary to win. And I know what I need to provide to do that. And so, with that experience, I think I can make people comfortable with, you know, we’re growing. I’ve got a partner now. You know, we’re looking to hire and, you know.
I mean, obviously, you need the human resources but that’s, I think, how you deal with that. But you need experience to do that. It would be very difficult, like go back 15 years, you know, in my career, the credibility wouldn’t have been there, I don’t think, to convince people that you know what you’re doing and you know exactly what you need.
Jim: What have you learned over the last year that you wish you knew the day you opened up your firm?
William: I probably would have done it sooner had I known it. Although, you know, the pandemic did provide some opportunities to kind of shift the thinking and for people to understand that what I’m doing now could’ve been done a long time ago. But it’s just more, you know, more accepted, you know.
You know, that’s sort of the big thing. I mean, I think I knew that there were additional technology out there that could really– you know, could really– you know, you could leverage but it’s just– it’s– to bring that into a big firm. And, you know, you can’t really say, “Well, I’m going to bring in this technology package for me.” I mean, it has to be a firm‑wide decision. You know, there’s lots of things out there that I think are exciting. And it’s a newer industry. And things are changing. And there are startups and people popping up all over the place. But I think that’s something that I didn’t realize how advanced some things were that could’ve really helped, you know, in my practice.
Tyson: Jim always likes to ask people about their tech stacks. And so, I want to hear about your tech stack. So, let’s dig into that a little bit and tell us about your tech stack and the things you use to streamline things.
And, I think– you know, so, first and foremost, you try to maximize, you know, what you can get out of the Microsoft Suite because everybody has to have it, you know. So, that’s obviously a big part in figuring out how to use it most efficiently.
But, really, my document management, time – all that is done through a company called Filevine. I mean, they’ve been– I think they’ve been around for five or six years but they just had another seed round where they raised a bunch of money. You know, you can get stuck in a platform where they’ve built it and they’re just monetizing. And Filevine’s in a situation where they’re acquiring companies. There’s new changes every month, you know. And, really, it’s highly customizable.
So, I can take, you know, specific to my practice and the things that I’ve been trying to do for 10 to 12 years, and customize that platform exactly for what we need. And, you know, you have to have some ability to do that. For some lawyers, they’re going to say, I’m not going to try to touch this but, you know, I have an electrical engineering background. I’m not afraid to, you know, kind of dig into a technology and really build something kind of the way that I want it – task flows, how you manage documents, processes. You know, you can– the sky’s the limit. So, that’s a big part of it.
Certainly, I have all the, you know, remote communication technologies. And then, there are several that we’re looking at. You know, we need to bring some of these in, you need to have a certain amount of volume, you know, like I don’t do enough contract drafting to bring in, you know, contract, you know, one of those platforms but those look exciting. But there are some others that are more geared toward litigation that I think we’ll be bringing in and using quite heavily, so.
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Jim: You’re listening to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast. Our guest today is Attorney William Woodford. He’s an IP lawyer. And he’s been out on his own for a little over a year.
One of our friends is a guy named Jeremy Baker, up in Chicago, and he does construction law. And he talks to Tyson and I a lot about how a lot of our marketing ideas, and our systems, and stuff are sort of geared for consumer‑facing practices. Can you talk to us about what’s different for you dealing with sort of, I would imagine, you know, bigger companies or midsize companies in sort of how you approach marketing when it comes to that clientele?
William: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s something we deal with because a lot– you know, there is– most people think of the way websites are structured, the way that all works, it’s– you know, or– you know, your normal consumer. My consumers are— a lot of them are lawyers, but then there’s also, you know, the upper management. Like, a lot of times, when it’s a smaller company, maybe the CEO that I talk or, you know, somebody at that level. So, really, we have to do it– we have to take two different approaches. I mean, even when it comes down to how we’re– you know, we’re doing constantly redesigning and thinking about the website and how we approach people.
But you have content that’s directed toward lawyers and what they are going to care about – latest case developments, you know, things that lawyers deal with which, if you were to go talk to a CEO, they’re not going to read any of that or probably care to. So then, you have to mark it in a separate direction for– you know, for the smaller, medium‑sized companies that are exciting and have opportunities, but they just don’t have, you know, legal staff on hand to kind of make those decisions.
So, you really have to look at it– it’s segmented. And that’s something we’re constantly tweaking. You know, we’re working on that now because, you know, when you change your overhead structure, you can devote a lot more work to marketing whereas maybe, you know, you pull it away from your office space, you pull it away from those kinds of costs and you can direct it toward marketing and be more front and center with potential clients.
Tyson: You know, it just hit me that like one of the things about big law is it seems like the draw is sort of the prestige like, you know, like I’m working for this big firm. And I think that’s– I think that that’s a big thing for a lot of people. How do you– like what’s the selling point to get talent– to draw talent away from those firms as you begin to grow?
William: Yeah. I think that’s a good question and that’s what we’re, you know, we’re going to be faced with here soon. You know, for some people– I mean, it’s the vision. It goes both ways. Like, if I come across somebody who’s– you know, they like the way things were and they just want to have that sort of a– you know, that’s how they think about their job in the legal industry, they’re not going to be a good fit. You know, we have a vision. We’re looking to, you know, stay on the cutting edge, evolve, you know, move things, you know, to where we’re, we think, we’re providing better value for clients and really, you know, leveraging technology in doing those things.
So, if someone’s excited about that, I mean, comp‑wise, we can match, you know. I mean, it’s gotten a little crazy here lately so I should be careful. You know, I don’t know if we can match anything that any big firm does but shifting around the overhead, you can pay for talent but that’s half the battle. You need that talent to buy your vision and practice the way, you know, that you want the firm to be known consistent with your, you know, your mission.
Jim: And so, what is your current— I mean, I think that right now it’s you. I don’t know what other team members you have but sort of what is your plan for growth?
William: Yeah. So, I’ve got a new partner. So, that was just in the last month or so. And that kind of takes time. The second is harder than the third and the fourth, you know, as that goes.
But, I mean, I think the other thing that’s different about, you know, what we’re going to do is we staff different. And I started doing this at my old firm. You know, the way I staff litigation is, I would say, not traditional because, when you’re doing high‑tech litigation, there is a role for someone who’s not a lawyer, who’s a technology specialist that is, you know, a far lower, you know, cost to a client but they’re more equipped to dig into technology, to dig into all the documents we need to review and really understand a technology as opposed to maybe, you know, some lawyers, they don’t come out of law school thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait to dig into all these technical specifications,” you know, so. And I prefer to have, you know, more maybe a technology specialist and more partner‑type people. And then, hopefully, you can use technology so you can have a lighter presence of mid‑range associates. You know, you don’t need to have an army of people, which is different.
I mean, big law kind of operates the other way, if they have a budget, where it’s leverage. It’s, you know, you want to have a whole bunch of people staffed on your case and you want people billing because that’s how you make money, you know. So, I’m moving away from that. You know, alternative fees play a big role in that. It all fits together.
Jim: One of the things that you noted in your form, for us, in getting ready for the podcast, was sort of your thoughts on the future of law. And I’m wondering, what do you think’s going to happen to big law, say, in the next 15 – 20 years? You’ve got an insider view. You clearly broke away from that. Where do you think things are headed?
William: Well, I think, right now, I think there’s an actual– a big opportunity for boutiques. You know, it’s kind of this is how the cycle works. You get a bunch of boutique firms. Then, there’s all sorts of mergers, and everybody gets big, and then people start to break away. And it’s kind of that that cycle.
I think it’s getting to the point where, you know– and we’re in unique times – inflation, the cost of labor, and it happened in the, you know, in the legal industry. And immediately after I left, like a big law, first‑year lawyer, never practiced, went from 185 to, you know, 210. That’s a big deal. That’s a big shift in cost structure because that gets– you know, it goes up the chain and everybody is getting paid a whole lot more. So, the question is, can you raise rates to adjust for that?
Now, in the past, big law has been able to do that. They raise rates, clients accept it, profit margins are healthy, no reason to change.
I think we’re starting to get to the point where, you know, the combination of the increased costs, the general unhappiness in the profession, especially for younger lawyers. You know, something’s going to give there. And I think, in being able to restructure my overhead and not– I’m not really going to ask people to make less but it’s just restructuring what we invest in. And you can essentially leverage people across more matters. So, that’s kind of how I see where it’s going. At least that’s– you know, I guess, I’m betting on that but that’s the vision that I see.
Tyson: It’s funny. I was going to ask that exact same question. So, I’m going to ask in a little different way though. Are you starting to notice that clients are paying attention to the rates, where they are seeing, “Hey– they are paying a lot of money to these attorneys? I don’t need to be spending all that money because it’s come out of my pocket.” Are you seeing that they’re starting to notice?
William: Yeah. I mean, they have been for a long time, actually. So that’s where– like in my previous practice, there were large groups of companies that were just– even large– like large, well‑known companies that, if I said their name, everyone in the country would know who they are, that we were just priced out. So, you know, the pool gets a lot smaller. So that was already happening. And I think it’s– you know, that’s going to, of course, continue.
There are always the companies that if it’s high stakes, if there’s hundreds of millions on the line, you know, there’s– of course, they’re going to go– you know, just even internally, if you’re that lawyer making a decision, “Am I going to take a chance on a small firm? What if I lose? Then, what are they going to say?” Like, okay, you saved– you know, you saved $3 million but you lost a hundred.
So, I think there’s always going to be that aspect that bigger is safe. It’s, you know, comfortable. Nobody can complain if they lose. What else was I going to do? I hired the biggest law firm there is. So, there’s always going to be that aspect, but I think it’s the pool of companies that can make those decisions is probably shrinking, you know, and will continue to shrink.
Jim: William, I’m wondering– as an immigration lawyer, I can practice in all 50 states. As an IP lawyer, you can too. I’m wondering, what are your thoughts or what’s your approach when it comes to looking for clients outside of your home area?
William: I actually, for my entire career, I really had no clients in my– except for a couple, in my home area. I have clients in Europe. I have clients all over the country. I have clients in Asia. That’s kind of more not as big of a focus for me now. I mean, I’ve got plenty. But Europe is a big, big area for me, so.
And, largely– I mean, I think, on the European side, they’re more open to different sort of fee arrangements. They’re more creative. They’re not stuck in the kind of like– I mean, most everybody in‑house, at big companies, probably came from big law, you know, or at least have roots somewhere associated with big law. So, they’re okay with, you know, kind of the way the industry is, the pricing and all of that.
In Europe, I mean, there’s some of that, but I find there’s more desire for different types of fee arrangements and, you know, they’re not so caught up in the prestige of a big law firm. They really want your lawyer to be experienced and know what they’re doing and, you know. So, I think that’s why Europe has maybe become a bigger part of my practice, even now that I’ve left.
Tyson: All right, William– well, I mean, this has been a really interesting conversation, I wish we could talk more, but we are against our time, so I do want to wrap things up. Before I do, I want to remind everyone to join us in the big Facebook group, just search “Maximum Lawyer” on Facebook, and select groups, and you should be able to find us.
Make sure, if you want a high‑level conversation, go join us at maxlawguild.com. Make sure you get your tickets. By the time this airs, it’s going to be really, really close to the conference, so get your tickets at maxlawcon2022.com, if they’re still available.
And while you’re listening to the rest of this episode, please give us a review. We would really, really appreciate it.
Jimmy, what’s your hack of the week?
Jim: Tyson, as you know, I have a couple of questions that I fall back on a lot when talking to different law firm owners. One of them is from Dan Sullivan which is, “If we were sitting here today, three years from now, what would have to happen for you to feel like you made progress?” That’s one of my old standards. The other one that I really like is from Jerry Colonna, who wrote Reboot, who asks, “How have I been complicit in creating the conditions that I say that I don’t want?” I think I have a new question to add to the mix.
I mentioned on the show a couple of weeks ago that I’m reading a book called The Promise That Changes Everything and it’s about listening and not interrupting. And there’s a question in there that I really liked that I wanted to share with our listeners. And the question is this, “What might you be assuming that is stopping you? What might you be assuming that is stopping you?” So, it sort of gets to limited beliefs, to blocks, to sort of the assumptions that we make that keep us from doing more thinking. And the whole point of the book is about not interrupting so as to allow the other person to do more thinking and to advocate for more thinking. And so, I think that if we look at things that we might be assuming are true, if we play around with it a little bit, it might open up our thinking.
Tyson: Very good. I like that.
You’ve been a very deep thinker lately, Jimbo. So, that’s– I think it’s your little– your little thing you went on last week. So, really good.
All right. William, well, we always ask our guest to give us a tip or a hack. It could be a book. It could be a podcast. It could be really anything. So, do you have a tip for a hack for us?
William: Well, you know, I think I’m going to build off the assumption statement because I think a lot of what we’ve talked about here, you know, there’s a resistance to change. There’s a lot of assumptions that go with that. And I think, you know, putting this in the context of what we just talked about, I think, you know, for clients, you know, whether you’re a big company, a small company, don’t feel locked into what kind of the industry, you know, puts in front of you. You can think outside the box. You can, you know, do– you know, whether it’s price structures or just, really, you know, whatever. I mean, don’t be afraid to do that. I think you’ll find that there are a lot of people out there who are eager to work, you know, in a different way. And so, yeah. So, the assumptions is that’s a good tip. And I think, you know, the hack I would have would be keep that in mind when you’re thinking about, you know, who you’re hiring.
Tyson: I like that a lot. Very good.
All right. Well, my tip is we started something last week, we did it again this week. So, we moved our Friday meetings. So, all of our meetings are on one day. They used to be Friday’s. Since we just switched to a four‑day workweek, we switched those to Wednesday’s, so everybody works on Wednesday’s. We just started calling it affirmation Friday’s. We have to change the name of it.
But what we do is we– on the daily huddle, we go around and say something really nice about a person, one person. So, we pick a person for the day. Now, we’ve done it twice and both time people have cried. They’ve cried at both times, really. It’s really interesting. So, I really recommend doing it. We’re going to– it’ll end up playing out about like three or four times to them a year.
We got it from a dentist. We got the idea from a dentist, but it was a— it’s really good idea. So, go around and just pick a person in your firm.
Now, William, with just being you, you’re just going to say something nice about yourself every day which you should be doing anyways.
But, for bigger firms, you go around. You pick one person. You say something nice about them. And it really does– it’s interesting to see how they brighten up and how it really makes their day and makes their week. So, try it out and see what you think, so.
William: I’ve got a partner. You know, he could attest that every day I’m really nice and say great things, so.
Tyson: Well, you can say nice things back and forth to each other every other day. It’d be great, so—but, yeah. So, that’s my tip of the week.
William, thank you so much for coming on. Really, really appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
William: No, thanks a lot. This was great.
Tyson: Thanks, William. See you, bud.
Jim: Thanks, William. Bye, guys.