A Day in the Life: Zachary Herbert, Patent Engineer

In the world of patent prosecution, no two days are exactly the same. However, there is a cadence to the work. What does a “typical” day look like at Hanley Flight & Zimmerman? Let’s join Patent Engineer Zachary Herbert for a day in his work life.

How It Started

Zachary graduated from Purdue University in May 2022 with his bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical engineering – a strong technical foundation. Additionally, Zachary interned with HFZ for two summers prior to joining full-time, so he was ready to hit the ground running this summer.

How It’s Going

Zachary starts each day reviewing his docket of work to identify high-priority items and plan his day. Depending on the day, he may be in his home or at the HFZ office in downtown Chicago. Like many of his colleagues, Zachary makes the most of a flexible work schedule to choose the best location for the day, depending on the type of task or collaboration needed.

The work of Patent Engineers like Zachary is a vital part of the patent process. They dig into inventions to understand what patent protection may be available. Patent Engineers also provide detailed examples of how to build and use the invention in the patent application itself, working with the inventor to better understand the product or process to develop the specification with alternative approaches.

Throughout the day, Zachary can take on a variety of patent prosecution tasks. He may participate in Patent Examiner interviews with HFZ attorneys or work with inventors to properly explain and define their inventions. His day typically includes writing, be it drafting patent applications with the support of senior patent attorneys; preparing Office Action Responses; or incorporating feedback from other members of the HFZ team on the project. When in the office, Zachary can grab lunch with his teammates or take a walk along the river for a quick break to recharge mid-day.

Where He’s Headed

While Zachary joined HFZ following two successful internships, continuing his career growth is an important part of his job. Zachary has regular meetings with his mentor, Mark Hanley. HFZ’s mentorship program was intentionally crafted to help new patent engineers build relationships, receive meaningful and timely feedback, and make the most of their first year in practice. The supportive environment is part of why Zachary chose to stay with HFZ following his internships.

Like many early-career Patent Engineers, Zachary focuses on his career path after hours as well. He has been applying to law school, which he will start next fall. Attending law school while working can be challenging, so having the mentorship of seasoned professionals that have been through the process is essential.

Off the Clock

While his degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical engineering means Zachary is interested in how things fly, he also enjoys the end product. Zachary is working to obtain his Private Pilot License. Physical activity is another key part of Zachary’s day; he stays active either rock climbing or going for a run. He finds that consistent effort helps him stay focused, energetic and ready for the next challenge.

7 Things to Know About HFZ’s Mark Zimmerman

Mark Zimmerman has a hard time believing that Hanley Flight & Zimmerman is celebrating more than 20 years of service. Today, they’re one of Chicago’s most successful intellectual property law firms. For Zimmerman, it still feels like they opened for business just yesterday.

In a recent conversation, he shared his thoughts on HFZ’s first two decades — and talked about the time he accidentally scored a patent of his own.

Getting a patent is only part of the job. Zimmerman wants to make clients’ IP bulletproof.

HFZ helps clients secure patents for their inventions, but that’s only part of what the team does. The firm also develops strategies for protecting those patents from people who might challenge them later in court.

“You can kind of go through the motions and get someone a patent and pray that it never gets litigated,” Zimmerman said.

“Or you can treat it like it’s an asset. Like we expect it to be litigated one day and treat it like it’s really, really important. Our firm falls into the latter category – we want to issue patents that withstand litigation.”

One of the keys to HFZ’s success? They’re attorneys who can think like engineers.

In fact, more than a few of the firm’s attorneys are former engineers. That includes Zimmerman, who got his start as a design engineer with Motorola.

The team’s know-how makes a huge difference when inventors come in and explain how their technology works. HFZ grasps new ideas quickly.

“I think our technical expertise sets us apart,” Zimmerman said. “Of course, we don’t know all the intricacies of what they’re doing because what they’re doing is new. But we’re able to get into the ballpark pretty fast.”

The happiest man at Motorola inspired Zimmerman to become a patent attorney.

Early on, when he was trying to figure out the next step in his career, Zimmerman talked to senior people in several departments. Of everyone he interviewed, the person who seemed happiest was a patent attorney.

Zimmerman still remembers their talk: “He says, ‘You know what, Mark? I have the best job in this whole company.’ And he tells me the job is meeting with the engineers, learning about the new inventions and getting them protected. And that sounded cool.”

It inspired Zimmerman to go to law school at night, join a law firm specializing in intellectual property — and eventually launch HFZ with Mark Hanley and Jim Flight.

Zimmerman has something in common with clients: He has a patent, too.

HFZ makes a point of going above and beyond for clients, Zimmerman said. But one case stands out.

“I was thinking about a client’s problem before the meeting and thought up a solution. I said, ‘Couldn’t you guys do this?’” he recalled. “The client really liked the invention, so we worked together to patent it. I think that kind of invention only occurs when you are deeply thinking about your client’s business and their problems. It is gratifying to have that kind of relationship and a very enjoyable way to work.”

He’s not just HFZ’s co-founder. He’s the former head of accounts receivable.

When you’re starting a new business, sometimes you have to wear multiple hats. In Zimmerman’s case, he was responsible for accounts receivable while Hanley took point on accounts payable.

“You could tell the two guys who were patent attorneys by day had, by night, done the accounting work,” Zimmerman said.

One milestone for HFZ was when they realized they had enough business to justify hiring an accountant, which was surprisingly early on in the history of the business.

If he wasn’t a lawyer, he’d probably be building things.

Zimmerman grew up in his family’s construction business, Wm. Tonyan & Sons of McHenry, Illinois. “My dad and my uncles owned a business that my cousins run now,” he said. “And so I started working there when I was in the eighth grade. I think now if I weren’t doing this, I would want to be building things.”

That first job taught him lessons that he still uses at HFZ.

“I like making a business work — that kind of thing that you don’t get taught in law school,” he said. “And I think I learned a lot of that from my dad, just watching him run the construction company when I was a kid.”

It’s all about protecting clients’ ideas.

A big part of HFZ’s job is talking with patent examiners, the government officials who decide whether an invention meets the standard for patentability.

“A lot of times it gets down to talking on the phone with the examiners, explaining who your client is, what they’re bringing to the table and letting the examiners understand that the inventor is a real person that solved a real problem,” Zimmerman said.

“And that’s what we’re trying to protect. We’re trying to protect what our inventors brought to the table.”

James Flight Honored Among Leading IP Strategists

James (Jim) Flight, a founding member of HFZ, is recognized in the 2022 edition of IAM Strategy 300: The World’s Leading IP Strategists.

The IAM Strategy 300 identifies “individuals who are leading the way in the development of strategies that maximize the value of IP portfolios.” The list comprises leaders from a variety of arenas, including service providers, corporations, research institutions and universities. Areas of specialty range from brokering to valuation; Jim is listed in the Legal category.

The roster of honorees was compiled through an editorial process that includes peer nominations, research and source interviews. More information on the methodology is available here.

Engineering Success: Mentorship in Action at HFZ

When it comes to the traditional law firm onboarding process, one recent tweet sums up a far too common scenario:

twitter screenshot from Maria S

As evidenced by nearly 1,000 likes, the author describes a feeling of loneliness and confusion that is familiar to many. Indeed, the American Bar Association shared one survey in which 88 percent of associates said the right mentor was essential for career development….but only 27 percent said one was available to them.

Lack of mentorships is one problem; the success of mentorships is another. In a survey by Major, Lindsey & Africa, less than one-third – 29 percent – of associate lawyers said mentors made a significant difference.

Looking to address both of these concerns, Chicago’s Hanley Flight & Zimmerman (HFZ) created a mentorship program designed to build quality relationships and provide real-time feedback, both quantitative and qualitative, to help new lawyers and patent engineers make the most of their first year in practice.

The fundamentals of the program:

  • Every new hire is assigned a mentor. Mentors are HFZ’s capital members, experienced lawyers or experienced patent agents.
  • Mentors and mentees meet frequently. This frequency means that if a problem does surface, it is addressed early – and the practitioner has sufficient time to course-correct.
  • Once a month, mentors review the mentees’ key performance indicators (KPIs), reports that show quantitative measures such as efficiency, on-time delivery and billable hours.
  • Mentors also share qualitative feedback. Through the firm intranet, HFZ colleagues can share praise or advice on an ongoing basis; this is collected by the mentors and shared with the mentees monthly as well.

“Together, the KPIs and the feedback drive their conversations so they talk about things that matter,” said Founding Member Mark Zimmerman. “Here’s how you are performing on paper, and here’s what people are saying.”

In addition to providing meaningful structure to the mentor-mentee meetings, Zimmerman said the format prevents any shocking revelations at year-end evaluations.

“It makes the end-of-year review like getting a report card,” he said. “You know the grades you have earned throughout the class. There are no surprises.”

It’s a vastly different approach to what he and the other firm founders endured as associates, Zimmerman said.

“We didn’t receive hours reports, we didn’t receive efficiency reports, and no one was assigned to us,” he said. “Some people had the mentors they needed, but some didn’t.”

By creating formal mentor-mentee pairs – and providing them a helpful structure – the HFZ program has proven to benefit more than just the new hires.

“It helps the mentors remember what it was like to be at that stage, to remember the demands on these people, and to adjust expectations,”  he said. “It also benefits the entire firm to have people truly invested in these people’s success – it makes a more pleasant sandbox.”

Over the long run, it helps clients too, he said: “Any time we have people with the firm doing the work in a way that delivers consistency and quality, it benefits our clients.”

Seven Things to Know About Mark Hanley As His Firm Turns 20

Hanley Flight & Zimmerman doesn’t just make Chicago proud as a top intellectual property law firm. It also stands out as a business where the founders read books about rock band dynamics to make sure they’re staying the course.

Here are seven highlights from a recent conversation with co-founder Mark Hanley, covering his history with the firm, how he got there, what HFZ offers clients – and what Aerosmith has to teach us all.

He became a patent lawyer after working as an engineer for a decade.

“I was in product development, where several of the devices we developed were the subject of some patent applications. I was a joint inventor on all of them,” Hanley said. “You sit down with the patent attorneys at some point to talk to them about your invention. And I got curious one day and talking with this patent attorney that came in to speak with the group.”

He learned that the attorney had originally graduated with an engineering degree before deciding he wanted to take a different course.

That triggered a memory from when Hanley mowed lawns as a preteen. A patent attorney client offered a peek into the future.

The attorney noticed that Hanley enjoyed fixing things and tinkering with his mower. So he called him over one day to look at his work.

“He had all these papers spread out,” Hanley said. “And he said, ‘You know, I’m a patent attorney, and I work on inventions. And I was an engineer. And I like tinkering with things, too. But I thought I’d show you some of these.’ And they were published patent applications.”

While as a youth Hanley understood the conversation as a nudge to become an engineer, the lightbulb went off for him as an adult. Maybe he was meant to do more.

At that point, he made a major life change. He decided to quit his job and become a patent attorney.

The engineering business was changing, with work being outsourced to Taiwan.

Hanley ended up leaving his engineering gig altogether. “I ended up finding a job at a firm in the city, working for them during the day and going to law school at night,” he said. “And that’s where I met [Mark] Zimmerman and [James] Flight.”

After starting the firm, the founders haven’t forgotten what it was like. They offer that support to new employees making similar changes.

“We know what it feels like to be in school at night, to work all day and to go to school at night,” Hanley said. He added: “It’s not like these people that are going to school at night that work with us have a light docket, they have a pretty heavy docket. They work hard.”

The point, he noted, is that law school isn’t forever. The firm supports those going through the process. And it makes great business sense, too; people that work with HFZ during law school can hit the ground running when they graduate.

The company’s positive culture makes a difference, both to those working there and those who hire HFZ for IP work.

Hanley acknowledges that law firms can be challenging environments for employees. But HFZ’s folks enjoy their work and are satisfied with what they do, which he ranks as an important accomplishment.

But that’s just one side of the coin. “The clients give us great feedback. They’re very happy with our work,” he said. “I’m pretty proud to hear things from some of these bigger companies, like ‘You’re our favorite prosecution firm in the country.’”

What three words would he use to describe HFZ?

“Serious. And I think we’re serious about the work. That’s where that comes from.”

Flexible. “We’re very flexible toward individuals and what’s happening with them personally,” Hanley said. “But also business wise … we try to take our ego out of this stuff and think about it. Maybe we’re doing it wrong, you know. We revisit things all the time.”

Determined. “We are determined to make it work. We don’t give up.”

When asked where he found unusual sources of inspiration, Hanley noted a very specific genre of nonfiction: books about rock bands and their dynamics, especially one by Joe Perry of Aerosmith.

“The business part of this rock band thing is really interesting,” he said. “Because it’s personalities, right? … The way these guys work, it’s like a partnership. And they have all this business to conduct.”

In a focused law firm, members need to approach each other with empathy and understanding, he said – and seek harmony among the different parts.
“You can’t just get emotional or let the emotion carry you away, because that’s when bands break up, right?” he said. He added: “Going solo almost never works.”