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Close-up: Dan Chambers

Small patent law group keeps focus on clients' big innovations

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San Diego patent attorney Dan Chambers said he basically works for entrepreneurs.

So he decided to form a law firm comprised of similarly minded individuals.

With just five full-time attorneys, Biotechnology Law Group is a boutique intellectual property firm representing a range of companies in the life sciences and biotechnology industries.

All partners work from home and at their own discretion.

"Each of us is a small business person," said Chambers, dressed casually in his office, a building set back just behind his house in Solana Beach.

"Everybody affiliated with BLG is somebody who wants to have a business for themselves. It's an entrepreneurial environment for that reason alone, and I think that has some appeal to our clients as well."

The partners -- which include Alan Dow, Dave Maher, Sam Tahmassebi and Reginald Gaudino -- convene at least once a week for lunch to discuss firm business, changes in law and for some light conversation.

In lieu of a central office, BLG rents an executive suite, where members can meet clients, conduct meetings and receive mail.

"What really motivates us is better control over one's life and stress level," Chambers said. "This provides a little more control. You don't have big firm pressures ... managing partners and other folks telling us what we should be doing.

"We also enjoy each other's company. Not only are we professional colleagues, we're friends, and so it's nice to get to work with people who you like."

Chambers takes advantage of the flexible arrangement by eating breakfast with his wife and 4-year-old daughter each morning and attending his youngster's dance classes and swim lessons.

"I see stuff a lot of dads and moms don't get to see because they're at the office," he said. "My commute is 10 steps, as opposed to 10 miles or a half hour on the freeway."

Working from home also has its business benefits. With no downtown office and corresponding administrative staff, the firm has very little overhead. It buys from vendors on an "as needed" basis and further keeps costs down by running a mostly paperless practice.

BLG passes those savings onto its clients, making the firm a more attractive option for startups and small companies that need to watch the bottom line.

"I've worked for large firms and worked as an in-house counsel, and one thing that's always been a concern to me is the cost of outside counsel," Chambers said. "Our firm is much less expensive by comparison.

"Our pitch to clients is 'Superior value proposition.' Clients who access us (will get) someone who has 10 to 15 years of experience doing their work, instead of a junior associate or second-year associate doing their work at a firm with maybe a little bit of help from a partner or senior associate."

Chambers said his firm isn't driven by per-partner profits or the number of billable hours. BLG partners don't charge clients for faxes, phone calls or photocopies.

"I don't want to get rich off my legal practice, off my clients," he said. "The guys who deserve to get rich are the guys who are out there innovating and building businesses, taking real risks.

"I'm a service provider. I'm a glorified burger-flipper, like any other lawyer. If you're a small company, you should be looking for the best value."

BLG employs a series of paralegals and other service providers as needed. But Chambers said he doesn't want the firm to grow "out of control." The group seems quite happy to remain a boutique firm.

Chambers, who became a patent agent in 1990 and received his law degree in 1993, served as in-house counsel at biotech companies Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN) and Viagene in the early 1990s. In 1995, he went into private practice, working for such intellectual property heavyweights like Lyon & Lyon; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; and Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison.

In 2000, he returned to in-house counsel work with upstart company Geneformatics. After 18 months there, he founded BLG to see if he could go out on his own. He gave it two years. Seven years later, Chambers and BLG are still thriving.

"I very much enjoy my work," Chambers said. "It's intellectually challenging ... stimulating. I'm a technology bug by nature, and one of the great intangibles from my perspective is, I'm always learning something new. It wouldn't be patentable if it weren't new.

"Plus being in the law, the law is always evolving. There are always interesting issues to sort through."

The firm focuses on patent procurement, transactional work and writing non-infringement and freedom-to-operate opinions.

The partners draft patent applications and organize invention documents. They complete due diligence for investors and companies looking to acquire new technologies and also assess the risks of bringing certain products to market.

The one area BLG attorneys do not offer is litigation. It's too costly and requires large numbers of people working unpredictable amounts of time, Chambers said. The firm has all the business it can handle with approximately 80 clients.

Chambers' clients include the University of California, the Burnham Institute, Biosite and U.S. government research agencies.

He speculates that other law firms, even some of the big ones, will adopt a BLG-like business model, especially when it comes to reducing office space.

"I think we've hit upon a really good model," Chambers said. "It's a really good working environment."

Chambers isn't happy with the recent shift in patent law that's moving away from strong patent protection. Most of the changes, he said, are being driven by an attempt to harmonize the U.S. patent system with that of other countries.

"My question is, why doesn't the rest of the world harmonize with a system that's been shown to work?" he said. "We're apparently a knowledge-based economy. Innovation is what drives things. You should help protect innovators and innovation.

"In order for people to risk capital, they need to have some sort of assurance of return on their investment. The great thing about the patent system is it provides this period of exclusivity."

He said the changes will affect investment and the economy.

"These changes, if carried out, I believe will lead to a decrease in new business generation and new business startup," Chambers said. "How are you going to incentivize investors to take risks on new technology and new companies when they can't protect (the technology) or they can't protect (it) for a sufficient period or with a sufficient breadth to warrant investment?"

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