Many thanks to Steve Nipper, who, on today’s “rethink(ip)” blog, posts a link to Joseph Hosteny’s recent “Litigators Corner” article in the August, 2005 issue of IP Today. Many thanks also to Mr. Hosteny for airing some perhaps unpleasant truths about what goes on inside large law firms.

In case anyone wonders why patent litigation is so expensive, Mr. Hosteny provides some truthful and amusing insights. I chuckle because I know all too well the games that are played, having once been a large firm lawyer myself.

Big firms love patent cases (provided the client is loaded) because they are a license to print money. The opportunities for procedural shenanigans are almost limitless, what with Markman hearings, bifurcation of damages, requests for reexamination and all. And of course, it’s absolutely critical to make sure you get all 50 identical copies of the same document as requested, not just the 49 actually provided. (You never know when a crucial admission might be penciled on the margin of the missing copy.) Sure there is a lot of overlap, and it might be hard for laypeople to see what these efforts have to do with anything important, but hey, what’s money at a time like this?

What I’ve always enjoyed about contingent work is that it is lawyering in the purest form — you don’t do something unless it will realistically advance your case. Critics accuse contingent-fee lawyers of driving up legal expenses but I’ve never seen how that is the case — even when I was on the other side and billing by the hour. (On the contrary, and more than once, I thought I really owed my contingent-fee opponents at least a case of wine or scotch for having helped me hit my hours for the year — and then some.)

The truth is, today, with advanced technology, legal fees should be going down, not up. Most courts permit out-of-town lawyers to appear by phone for routine hearings. Depositions can be conducted via video to avoid travel time and minimize expense. PACER and other on-line resources make it easy to access well-researched briefs and memoranda on issues that come up over and over again. Still other on-line services make the expense and burden of a paper-based legal library obsolete too. Finally, is it really necessary that law firms be housed in the most expensive downtown real estate available? (It is, if what the firm is really selling is CYA insurance to nervous in-house counsel who will have a lot of explaining to do if a case goes south.)

The big problem for new contingent-fee lawyers is knowing which battles are, and which are not, worth fighting. It takes a bit of nerve and confidence not to waste time and effort on discovery battles or procedural matters that don’t really affect the outcome of a case.

Mr. Hosteny’s article is a good education for those just entering the contingent-fee field. Efficiency and economy are vital. It’s also educational for those who may be on the receiving end of huge legal bills and wonder how they happen, assuming they care.