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The Business Side Of Law: Jeffrey S. Sharp Of Marshall Gerstein & Borun On 5 Things You Need To Create Or Lead A Successful Law Firm

An Interview With Eric Pines

Learn the sweet spot of the intersection between what energizes you and what your clients need.

Law school primarily prepares lawyers for the practice of law. But leading or starting a law firm requires so much more than that. It requires the entrepreneurial skills that any CEO would need to run a business: How to manage personnel, hire and fire, generate leads, advertise, manage finances, etc. What does an attorney need to know about the business side of the law to create a successful and thriving law practice? To address these questions, we are talking to successful law firm principals who can share stories and insights from their experience with the “5 Things You Need To Create Or Lead A Successful Law Firm”.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffrey Sharp.

Jeffrey Sharp is the Managing Partner of Marshall Gerstein. He is a registered patent attorney with more than 30 years of experience in patent prosecution, litigation and transactional work who focuses his practice in the areas of biotechnology, chemistry, and chemical engineering.

Jeff has handled matters in a wide variety of biotechnology disciplines, such as pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and gene therapy; recombinant nucleic acid technologies, including plant biotechnology; and in-vivo and in-vitro diagnostic and gene-sequencing methods. He has also gained successful outcomes in diverse chemical and chemical engineering technologies, including organic, inorganic, and metallurgical chemistry; chemical and metallurgical processing; and food and beverage chemistry.

Jeff is recognized as a committed advocate on behalf of the firm’s clients, qualities recognized by his Martindale-Hubbell® AV Peer Review Rating™ and other recognitions. He was selected by the Chicago Law Bulletin as a “Leading Lawyer” and in recognition of his outstanding patent work in life sciences, has been featured since 2012 as a “Life Sciences Star” in LMG Life Sciences. He was selected for inclusion in the 2013–2021 Super Lawyers® lists. Only five percent of the lawyers in the state were selected for this honor. He was also selected by his peers for inclusion The Best Lawyers in America© since 2016 in the practice area of Patent Law. Since 2013, Jeff has been recognized as an “IP Star” in the Managing Intellectual Property IP Stars Survey, and selected as one of the “World’s Leading Patent Practitioners” by Intellectual Asset Management (IAM) magazine.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you ended up where you are? Specifically, we’d love to hear the story of how you began to lead your practice.

Growing up in Atlanta, I had a lawn business. I wanted to be an engineer and considered applying to MIT and Georgia Tech. A customer with one of the best lawns, who was an attorney and a Princeton grad, told me that Princeton had an excellent engineering school and suggested that I go there and then become a patent attorney. I took his advice!

I joined Marshall Gerstein in 1985 and became a member of the firm’s recruiting committee and eventually the management committee. This early exposure to leadership gave me a good perspective on how firms evolve generationally, the importance of hiring good people and the keys to successfully transferring leadership.

When 9/11 happened, a lot was going on in the world and in the firm and my predecessor decided it was time for the next generation to take the reins. I was 43 years old and had been a partner at Marshall Gerstein for ten years. I had a vested interest in the firm’s continued success. I put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and was elected Managing Partner.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Who has been your biggest mentor? What was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?

I’ve had two primary mentors in my career. The first was Mike Borun, who had been a biology teacher in Chicago Public Schools before going to law school. He was a pioneer in the area of biotechnology patent law and gained a world-renowned reputation for his work. He recruited me to the firm, and he always said, “Being a patent lawyer is the best job in the world.” He wasn’t wrong! Mike got such joy from his practice, and I learned from him that loving what you do is essential.

My other mentor was Owen Murray, an attorney who specialized in chemical and mechanical patents and was finely attuned to his clients’ business needs. His advice to me was that it’s all about the client. He taught me to anticipate their opportunities and problems and come to them with solutions before they realized they needed them. He was focused not just on the client as a company and its needs but also on the needs of the people working inside the company and how to help them achieve success for their businesses. It was an invaluable business lesson and has served me well ever since.

From completing your degree to leading a practice and a law firm, your path was most likely challenging. Can you share a story about one of your greatest struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

I’m not sure I have one specific story. Intellectual property law is a challenging field. It’s all hard work, and the work is harder at some times than at others. My best advice to overcome the daily challenges is that there’s always a solution. Trust the process and be patient; solutions — and opportunities for solutions — will present themselves. Even if the best solution is not in the form the client originally contemplated, be honest with the client on what their best options are and chart a different path forward. You’ll eventually get there.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

“Life is too short.”

I think practicing patent law as outside counsel is the best job in the world, but that’s me — and just because someone can do it, doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Find the work you like doing and the people you like doing it with, and if a particular situation isn’t fun most of the time, find one that is. I received this advice early in my career, and for 38 years, practicing law has rarely felt like “work.”

I try to share this advice I received: You should love your work. A lifetime is too long to be stuck in a career you don’t love.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

I love the science behind what our clients do. Our clients are at the forefront of solving important problems affecting human health and the quality of our lives in all sorts of ways. It’s really cool stuff! Inventors are always trying to solve problems, but they aren’t lawyers and don’t necessarily know how to protect their inventions or how to practice in light of the patents that others have on their inventions. I’m motivated by helping people solve those problems, and the more I can help, the better. It never gets old.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Marshall Gerstein recently completed an 18-month collaboration with Diversity Lab — which began in September 2020 — to track, consider, measure, and achieve diversity in recruiting, staffing, business development and leadership. We became one of just 26 midsize law firms that have achieved their inaugural Midsize Mansfield Rule Certification. I am especially pleased to share that we were one of just 16 Certified Midsize Mansfield firms in the country to achieve Certification “Plus” status for exceeding more stringent requirements in those areas. Our people are our greatest asset, and all of us at the firm are passionate about ensuring inclusive and equitable work environments and promoting the next generation of diverse leaders in the legal profession — and beyond.

Let’s now shift to discussing the business of law. Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

Marshall Gerstein is an IP law firm. At our core, we help inventors — and the companies and universities they are associated with — protect and take advantage of their innovations. This presents myriad applications and real-world issues — everything from patent filings to trademark prosecutions to cyber law to copyrights. It’s a fascinating field that’s at the forefront of so many of today’s innovations and advancements.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Intellectual curiosity is top of the list. I’ve always been interested in what I do, and I love to be able to continue to learn.

Second is resolve. As I mentioned earlier, there’s always a solution to the challenges you face. You have to put in the hard work and trust the process. You’ll get there.

And last is patience. It goes hand-in-hand with resolve, but more importantly, patience allows room for reflection, growth, and perspective.

There’s no special trait that I have. I’m fortunate to love what I do and to have surrounded myself with people who are much smarter than I am.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

After working as an engineer in the chemical industry, I went to law school at the University of Georgia, which was an excellent school but not well known in the Midwest. An Ivy League degree can open some doors in the interview process, but in law — and particularly in IP law — practical experience and scientific know-how often trump where you went to school. Most IP lawyers receive degrees in science or engineering before they get their law degree, and this is true at Marshall Gerstein. Even more valuable is that most of our attorneys worked as engineers and scientists in industry or academia prior to becoming lawyers. This practical experience is invaluable to our clients.

Managing being a law practitioner and a business/firm leader is a constant balancing act. How do you manage both roles?

Hire good people and let them do their jobs.

As managing partner, I help people solve problems. It’s the same as in my law practice — we’re problem solvers. We give our people the tools and support they need to excel, much like how we support our clients. We’re able to scale that approach, and good people fuel our work.

Can you help articulate the entrepreneurial skills a lawyer needs to run and lead a successful law firm?

Leading a law firm requires a number of technical skills, such as some basic accounting and finance skills, but law firms are professional services firms whose only real assets are their people. Because of that, it’s important to like and be interested in people and to understand their motivations and needs so that you can support groups of smart, motivated professionals in working well together for the benefit of the firm and its clients.

As a business leader you spend most of your time working IN your practice, seeing clients. When and how do you shift to working ON your practice? (Marketing, upgrading systems, growing your practice, etc.) How much time do you spend on the business elements?

As attorneys, our first job is to represent our clients who have entrusted their matters to our attention. This is constant, but we also are running a business, and it is critical to attend to the other parts of that every day (or almost every day). Lawyers succeed as attorneys because they are constantly attentive to the urgent needs of their clients. It’s important, though, to have the discipline to attend to the important but less urgent tasks of marketing, recruiting, training, and upgrading systems and technology. I have a docket for my legal deadlines and make lists of the other things that need to be done. New things are constantly added to the lists, but I know I am making progress when I’m able to mark other things off as completed.

Can you share some specific, non-intuitive insights from our personal experience about how a leader of a law firm should:

  • Manage personnel:
  • Hire and fire:
  • Generate leads:
  • Advertise:
  • Manage finances:

We are in the professional services business and, while systems and technology are important, it’s all about our people. People are all different, though. We all have different aspirations, motivations and fears. One size does not fit all. We don’t always get this right, but taking a little more time to get to know people and what their needs are helps us help them succeed. The same applies to clients and prospects. What are their needs? How can we help them be successful? Business development is not about selling; rather, it is understanding prospects’ needs and potential opportunities, and being available as a resource to help them achieve their goals. Marketing is never about benefitting the attorney; it is always about benefitting the client.

Most of our work comes from longtime clients and repeat engagements, but when we get new work, it is frequently because of individuals we worked with at one client moving to a new client and engaging us there because they know and trust us. In a similar way, many new clients come to us because of referrals they receive from current or past clients. As a result, we spend a lot of time cultivating the relationships we have but don’t do very much advertising.

Here is the main question of our interview about the business side of law. What are your 5 Things An Attorney Needs To Know In Order To Create A Successful And Thriving Law Practice?

These are my five “thrive” elements:

  1. Know yourself. What energizes you? What do you like doing? Without self-knowledge, success is very hard to achieve. Everything, really, comes from this: strengths, weaknesses, passions, capabilities — you name it. It goes back to what Mike Borun exemplified. He knew what he loved, and everything flowed from there.
  2. Know what your clients want and what they need. Any businessperson worth their salt knows their market. That knowledge of your clients’ needs should drive your practice and the types of services you provide.
  3. Learn the sweet spot of the intersection between what energizes you and what your clients need.
  4. Identify what additional skills you need to succeed, then go after them. Always find time for self-improvement. Education is a wonderful thing that will serve you for your entire life if you continue to pursue it.
  5. Understand the necessity of scale and how to do more. Know how to do it in your field or your practice. Figure out what works best for your firm. Learn how to network, market and work smarter.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I think that education is the thing that in the long term provides the most good to the most people. The U.S. has some of the very best educational institutions in the world, but access is very uneven. Intelligence and talent exist in every child everywhere, but we miss developing that talent because of very uneven opportunity. Providing an excellent, affordable education to every single child from preschool through college is the most important thing we could do as a nation.

As an IP attorney and the leader of an IP firm, every day I see our work make a real impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. It’s an awesome responsibility and a distinct privilege to see the good in what we do.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Marshall Gerstein maintains a great online presence at marshallip.com. You can see the firm’s latest work and learn about our people and their backgrounds. They’re a fascinating bunch, and their diversity tells you a lot about our industry as well as the firm’s scope of work. You can also connect with the firm via social media on LinkedIn and Twitter

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.

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Eric L. Pines

Eric L. Pines

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Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach