Net-zero: the ESG push is creating work for law firms
The ESG push is creating new work for law firms © Bloomberg

As climate change, loss of biodiversity and resource scarcity rise up the corporate agenda, the innovations needed to address these problems are generating more work for patent firms — and changing the way attorneys do their jobs.

The past decade has seen a rise in the filing of patents related to environmental goals, such as net-zero carbon emissions — particularly in the energy sector — driven by an emergent green economy and a flow of funds into environmental, social and governance (ESG) focused investments.

In renewable energy, the number of international patents filed in 2019 was 3.5 times higher than in 2002, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. Most of this growth occurred between 2002 and 2012 — a decade in which patent numbers rose 547 per cent.

Similar patterns have been seen in the patents filed through the UK Intellectual Property Office Green Channel, which can speed up patent applications for inventions with environmental benefits. In 2019, these applications reached 286, double the 137 received in 2009.

Colin Baker says demand for technologies that address environmental challenges such as climate change are increasing the workload at Nottingham-based law firm Potter Clarkson, where he is a partner. He reports a greater focus from clients on innovations in renewable energy.

“We’re noticing more work coming through in the electrical energy generation sphere,” he says. “There’s a lot more interest in battery technology, as well as renewable energy — things like solar, wave, biofuels and wind turbines.”

Battery technology and hydrogen power are two subsectors that Juan Arias highlights as providing more work for Spain’s ABG Intellectual Property, where he is managing partner.

And while the firm’s cases related to battery technology have been increasing over the past five years, he says those related to hydrogen power have emerged in the past few months. “Hydrogen is a very hot topic,” he says. “We are working with at least three big companies on this.”

This demand for solutions to tackle climate change is not only increasing the volume of work for patent attorneys, it is also changing the way they do their jobs.

Most notably, the new technologies require attorneys to work across disciplines, encouraging more collaboration between the different practices in patent law firms.

“It’s most definitely led to changes in the way we work,” says Clarkson, citing the example of batteries. “A lot of the technology in developing batteries will be traditional chemistry. But when you come to the battery management system, that’s a software issue — so having multidisciplinary teams is important.”

A similar shift is happening in academia, says Estelle Derclaye, professor of intellectual property law at the School of Law at University of Nottingham. “You have new sectors emerging where, for example, chemistry is crossing with biotech to make compounds more recyclable,” she says. “In universities, this cross-disciplinary research and collaboration is encouraged so that people talk to each other rather than working in silos.”

In an industry whose firms are traditionally structured around specialist areas, this means taking steps to encourage collaboration. To do this, ABG runs internal seminars — conducted remotely during the pandemic — where presentations are made of cases that have required interdisciplinary approaches.

ABG also links year-end bonuses to collaboration and, in rewarding staff, it prioritises work in meeting the firm’s overall goals over individual performance.

“We track who works with whom,” says Arias. “It’s a bit more complicated than before, but we’re taking measures to avoid competition between departments.”

The relative success of internal collaboration depends partly on a firm’s culture, says Sophie Ertl, a partner from the engineering team at Maiwald, a German IP firm. “It changes the structure of a law firm,” she says. “In former times, a partner was a kind of king in a kingdom. Now we are a team and we can’t fight over clients — we have to work together.”

A need to combine many disciplines when handling patents for environmental innovations means scale can be a plus point for a firm, reckons Eva Dörner, a partner from Maiwald’s life sciences team. Even though the patent law sector contains many boutique firms, larger practices can win business.

“When you have a certain size, it means you have expertise from all fields,” she says. “For our firm, it’s certainly an advantage that we have so many differently specialised attorneys — it’s good to have everything under one roof.”

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