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Behind the Scenes with the Founders of Patent Docs

We recently sat down with MBHB partners Dr. Donald Zuhn and Dr. Kevin Noonan, founders of the Patent Docs blog (http://www.patentdocs.org/), to learn more about how the popular site was started.

When and how did Patent Docs get started? Where did the idea for the blog come from?

KN: “Dennis Crouch [who founded the Patently-O blog] was at our firm and he actually had the idea to start writing a blog about patent law. He talked to us about stories and we’d do guest posts for him occasionally. Finally, in October 2006, Don said “we need to start a blog.”

DZ: “Our first 10 to 15 Patent Docs posts were actually pieces we’d done for Dennis’s Patently-O blog. I saw what the blog had done for Dennis, and I asked him what he thought if I were to start a biotech version (he’s a mechanical engineer). He was really supportive of the idea, so I went to Kevin first and told him I wanted to start a blog, and then I asked a number of other equity partners. Kevin was the only one interested.”

KN: “Creating a blog seemed like a big undertaking for an associate, and I didn’t know at the time if we were going to get help from other people. I knew Don would look to me for help, which was fine because I like writing and it sounded interesting. We didn’t realize until later just how much it was going to take to post every day, but I quickly realized it was all or nothing.”

Were you ever nervous about having or finding the time to do the blog?

DZ: “Oh yeah. Dennis advised me that posting daily would be best, so I knew I needed to assemble a team of people to help. Kevin and three associates agreed to help, so we started out with equal contributions at first but our contributor team has changed over time.”

Was the firm supportive of your efforts to start Patent Docs?

KN: “We got lucky pretty early on. We had the blog up for about two months when I wrote a blog post in response to articles about gene patenting from Michael Crichton in the New York Times and Professor Lori Andrews of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Pretty soon, a BIO representative called me and I was getting involved with them. So, almost immediately we were able to say that we’d gotten something out of the blog, albeit in a more business development sense than clients per se. But I was making important connections that helped the firm while also helping us to justify the blog in its early stages.”

DZ: “When I came up for equity partner at MBHB, I think I made it because of the blog. I made it in the most difficult year the firm ever had, and my summary statement, which is normally a page, was six pages long with stats on the blog, its readership, etc. Overall, I’m not sure when exactly the tide turned in firm support for the blog, but it has turned since we started the blog. There’s not a single equity partner now who believes the blog is a bad thing — it’s recognized as a valuable asset to the firm.”

So how did you position the opportunity to the partnership?

KN: “A couple of MBHB folks were worried we might offend our clients by having the blog, but of course we would never post anything to purposely offend our clients. Ultimately, I did it because I thought it was a good idea, thought it was fun and was something I enjoyed. And frankly, we never bill time for it, and we’ve never asked the firm for any credit in billable hours.”

It seems like there was a need in the marketplace for not only more legal blogs, but for biotech content specifically.

DZ: “Yes there was. We focused on biotech not only because small molecules and biologics are our areas of expertise, but also because we thought there was no one else out there doing it and we thought we could add value to conversations in these areas. We realized a couple years later that there were actually people out there doing it at the time, just not to the same frequency or detail of what we had started with Patent Docs.”

What advice would you give to an associate thinking about starting a legal blog? What characteristics must you possess to be successful?

DZ & KN: “Bring in an equity partner with you. That level of support from the firm broadly or from that single person is important to have from the beginning. Beyond that, it depends on the firm. We have an entrepreneurial culture at MBHB, which is a hospitable environment for ideas like these to grow, whereas the same ideas might not work in a more traditional law firm environment.”

KN: “It’s important to emphasize to anyone out there hoping to start this kind of blog that it can be really difficult to find something you want to write about day after day. You must be motivated and can’t view your work on the blog as a job or a chore. While there will be days that are easier than others, all the writing is easy when it’s something you really like and enjoy doing.”

DZ: “You have to not only write about what you love, but you also have to bring value by writing something other people care about in order to have a successful blog. Without both those pieces of the puzzle, you’ll end up writing about something people won’t read.”

 

How do you determine which content makes it on to the blog?

DZ: “We’ll post anything we think a practitioner in this space should know. To find topics, I check the Federal Circuit and USPTO websites every day for opinions and notices and I update my running list of topic ideas. When topics are lean, we also write about patents that have recently been issued so we always have something to write about. I also make time to read things that I might not ordinarily read since the blog also benefits my work. My goal is to write a post that summarizes a document, and the reader should know after skimming it whether they need to read the full document or not.”

What are the challenges of being your own editorial board?

DZ: “I edit all posts to ensure that each one is at its best so I hate missing typos and things like that. But when it happens, it definitely helps to have a cohort who’s on the same page to back you up. While Kevin and I have that, we also balance each other out. Kevin is more provocative in a sense that he’s not afraid to take a stance and be controversial, while I’m always angling more toward the newsy side.”

KN: “We post six days a week and typically average 30-35 posts per month. So even with one or two more people contributing one post a week, or even two posts a month, it would be way easier for us on the time commitment.

What was the point when you as bloggers felt like you had become citizen journalists or “media?”

KN: “It happens all the time.”

DZ: “We actually don’t want to be seen as media because although people have asked us, we don’t want to monetize the blog. We make money being patent attorneys. But, we do accept the fact that in today’s blogger-centric society that we are seen as journalists of sorts. And, we’re usually reminded of that once a year or so.”

Any regrets? Any posts you wish you hadn’t done?

KN: “I have a few posts that caused a stir. One post got a friend of mine at the patent office in trouble with her bosses so I had to apologize even though she’d given me permission to write it. Another time, I received a threatening fax from a farmer involved in a case with Monsanto. But, no regrets.”

DZ: “Not a single regret, but there have been a few that have ruffled some feathers. Every time you put a post out in public, you know there’s an associated risk with it, but you don’t let that stop you from writing.”

 

So, what’s next for Patent Docs?

KN: “We may provoke more in the future. But, I think the real future of the blog is getting more people involved more consistently because people already know what Don and I think. We’ve also dabbled in a few topics that aren’t patent law as they come up, like some GMO [genetically modified organisms] and international trade policy, but again we’re patent lawyers, so all those things are just icing. All we can do is raise uncomfortable realities and make our readers think more critically about the laws and policies in front of them, and many times, ask the questions that haven’t been asked in order to demonstrate the larger implications of those laws and policies.”

Patent Docs Quick Stats:

  • Since its launch in late 2006, nearly 4,000 posts and three million words written on the blog
  • Patent Docs has gained more than 5,000 e-mail subscribers to-date
  • Named to the ABA Journal Blawg 100 in 2012 and 2013