Twenty Years of HFZ: How It All Started

Twenty years.

That’s not just a milestone anniversary Hanley Flight & Zimmerman is celebrating this year.

It’s a number that’s symbolic to the company’s origin story and success.

Two decades ago, Mark Hanley, James (Jim) Flight and Mark Zimmerman worked together at a large intellectual property law firm in Chicago.

The three were inspired to do something different. Build a firm that rewarded excellence, not just billable hours. Work as a team, not just as individuals.

And most importantly, focus only on patent prosecution, securing 20 years of exclusivity for inventions of the world’s leading corporations.

Twenty years later, those ideas continue to make HFZ a success, and a firm trusted by the best. The law firm represents seven of the top 25 patent-earning companies in the U.S., and its client roster includes Ford, GE, VMware, McAfee, Texas Instruments and Nielsen, among others.

“HFZ helps some of the most innovative companies in the world invest in cutting-edge technologies that advance the quality of life in countless ways for people around the world,” Jim Flight says.

“The U.S. patent system has been instrumental in building the most powerful economy in human history and has driven some of the world’s most significant technological developments. Without patent protection, the amount of investment in new technology will fall.”

Before the three founders realized their shared goals in patent law, they had similar stories growing up and early in their professional careers. They came from working-class backgrounds and were interested in engineering before pursuing law school at night to become patent attorneys, a path not only followed by many HFZ employees but encouraged and supported through the firm’s mentorship program.

As a youth, Mark Hanley tinkered with things and mowed lawns, including the yard of a patent attorney who showed him what his job was like. Years later, Mark left his electrical engineering career to pursue patent law.

Jim Flight was introduced to a patent attorney through his father, a carpenter who had worked on the lawyer’s home. Later, Jim was led to pursue patent law by the father of a college friend who opened his eyes to the legal world.

Mark Zimmerman grew up in his family’s construction business, Wm. Tonyan & Sons of McHenry, Illinois, before becoming an electrical engineer and later working for Motorola before entering law school.

After landing at the same law firm, they saw a changing market for IP legal services. There was an industry need for a service-oriented firm that focused on securing patents ready for enforcement.

They also had a common desire to build a unitary business rather than operate as a group of individuals sharing space and competing for staff and associate resources.

“A new firm for the new approach was really the best option for us,” Mark Hanley said.

They launched HFZ in the Civic Opera Building at 20 N. Wacker with five partners, one assistant and a handful of clients.

Today, HFZ has grown to 18 partners, 23 additional patent practitioners and about 30 staff, offering their clients dedicated teams for electrical, mechanical, software and biomedical patent services.

“We really have a solid team at HFZ,” Mark Zimmerman said. “During our time, we have seen substantial growth in the diversity of people practicing patent law and we have recruited top-notch women at all levels of the firm.”

HFZ’s accomplishments include a collection of world-class technology clients and a highly skilled team of patent practitioners, but Mark Hanley says there’s another:

“Prospering during the economic downturn of 2008-2009 and the pandemic without having to lay off a single person,” he says. In fact, HFZ saw its practice grow in those times with some clients sending more work to ensure the firm weathered the storm.

The founders purposely built the firm to operate as one, with everyone rowing in the same direction, and they put this into practice. One example is the firm’s mentorship program, which provides new hires with frequent feedback, both qualitative and quantitative. It is a significant time investment, but it ensures alignment across the firm – and helps address any issues before they become problematic.

“There is solid trust at the base of our relationship,” Mark Hanley said. “This allows us to push ideas around, challenge the ideas, and work to get to the best solution to the problems we are trying to solve, without resulting in bad feelings toward one another at the end of the day.

“While we may work relatively independently on many tasks and our day-to-day legal work, we stand ready to back each other as needed in difficult situations of all kinds, including client relationships, legal questions, and management problems.”

As for the next 20 years, Mark Hanley says he’d like to see HFZ add to its already great client roster and deepen its excellent team of practitioners and staff who truly enjoy what they do.

“We are grateful for everyone at HFZ, the partners, attorneys, patent agents, and staff, that day-in and day-out focus on performing at the highest level of quality and that make working together so enjoyable,” Jim Flight said. “We also want to thank our clients who have put so much trust in us. We are honored to be trusted by the best.”

7 Things to Know About HFZ’s James Flight

For James Flight, writing a patent claim is a lot like putting together all the pieces of a complex puzzle. It’s just one of the reasons why he loves working at Hanley, Flight, & Zimmerman, LLC, a leading Chicago intellectual property firm.

HFZ’s team not only strives to understand how a client’s new invention works, but how it compares to past technology and how it could fit into the future technological landscape. They must consider these factors as they write the patent claims to avoid the prior art, cover future implementations of the invention, and make it possible to detect infringement.

“It is exciting to face new puzzles every day and to be able to play a role in protecting great inventions for some of the best companies in the world,” said Flight, who co-founded HFZ.

To celebrate the firm’s 20th anniversary, he talked about what distinguishes HFZ from other patent firms.

Flight and his partners founded HFZ because they wanted to build a different kind of patent firm.

When Mark Hanley and Mark Zimmerman invited him to join the practice they were launching, Flight jumped at the chance.

“Mark, Mark and I wanted to do something different — build a firm that rewarded and cultivated excellence,” Flight said.

Unlike other patent firms, HFZ isn’t just a loose collection of independent partners.

“We purposely architected our firm to operate as one with everyone rowing in the same direction,” Flight said. “As such, we cooperatively work to ensure all of our clients are consistently treated well and matched with the best resources for the job at hand.”

Here’s what that looks like in practice: No tug-of-war over associates.

In many traditional firms, associate attorneys are at the mercy of the partners. Partner A wants them to tackle their work first, without considering the associates’ obligations to Partner B. Training and mentorship suffer, and so do the clients and associates.

“We build in internal quality controls that enforce cooperation and keep people from working in isolation,” Flight said. “We are a relatively flat organization where everyone is encouraged to speak up and contribute. We are big believers that open communication brings fresh ideas to the forefront, which leads to innovation and excellence.”

Part of what makes HFZ great is what they don’t do.

The firm doesn’t handle litigation, which is often better left to large general practice firms.

Instead, HFZ is dedicated to patent prosecution — preparing, filing and negotiating for patent protection — and pre-litigation counseling, with a clearly defined focus on electrical, software and mechanical arts.

“Many law firms try to ‘do it all’ and, unfortunately, end up not being very good at anything,” Flight said. “Our focused approach enables us to be excellent at everything we offer.”

Flight is an avid player of board games.

“There has been a Renaissance in board gaming over the last few decades,” he said. “Unlike the games of yesteryear, board games today are not simply ‘roll dice and move around the edge of a board.’ There are many more interesting mechanisms and engaging themes.”

Like “Agricola,” a farming game where players seek a balance between growing their family to handle a larger workload while also having enough food for everyone. Or “Terraforming Mars,” where players compete to be the biggest contributor to raising the oxygen level and the temperature on Mars, so it can permit settlement.

“I enjoy board games because they offer an opportunity to come together having fun around a table with friends and family,” Flight said. “Time together with those we love — what can be better?”

Looking for a good book? Flight recommends the Good Book.

If there’s one title that everyone should read, Flight said, it’s the Bible.

“Whether from a religious perspective, an arts perspective or a historical perspective, I think knowledge of the Bible is essential to an understanding of humanity, current events and history,” Flight said. “The events documented in the Bible are reflected in cultures around the world to this day. I don’t think anyone’s education can be complete without reading it.”

When he needs to take a break, nothing beats birding and fly-fishing.

Getting back to nature is one of Flight’s favorite ways to decompress.

“Just the thought of standing in a stream, watching the fly drift among the swirls of the water over a colorful streambed, makes me take a deep breath and relax,” Flight said. “Similarly, I feel birding tunes me to the ebb and flow of nature as we see migrations in spring and fall.

“If we don’t find ways to stop and look, we can miss the beautiful moments that make up life all around us.”

Flight takes his work seriously because he knows just how important patents are.

Developing new technology is expensive and risky. Granting patents to the companies that make those innovations, gives those companies 20 years of exclusivity to profit from their hard work. Without that protection, many businesses would stop spending money on new ideas, leading to a stagnant economy.

“Quite simply, investors do not make risky investments if there is no opportunity for reward,” Flight said. “The US Patent system has been instrumental in building the most powerful economy in human history and has driven some of the world’s most significant technological developments. We want to keep that system strong as it benefits us all.”

Growing with HFZ: Hanley Flight & Zimmerman develops great engineers into great patent attorneys

Hanley Flight & Zimmerman isn’t just trusted by the best companies in the country, it’s also earned the trust of its employees to be a supportive environment where their careers can take off.

James Redondo and Maggie Harrington are just two examples of how engineers can grow into patent attorneys with HFZ.

While Maggie is in the early stages of law school and James is a partner with the firm, both joined HFZ looking for a new challenge in their careers.

They saw patent law as a way to use their engineering skills and keep learning about technology. And after the firm hired them, both received mentorship and advice from colleagues at every step.

A math teacher goes to engineering school, and then finds a third career: Patent law

James, an undergraduate mathematics and education major, taught high school for five years before a friend thought he’d make a good electrical engineer. So James went back to college for a second bachelor’s degree.

At a career fair his senior year, James didn’t feel a real connection with many of the companies advertising engineering jobs. But HFZ’s table piqued his curiosity.

What James heard about patent law led him to apply for a job.

“You’re learning about little pieces of different technologies because every project you get comes from a different company, or a different group within that company,” he said. “You’re getting exposure to all these different technologies. It’s not just one thing over and over and over.”

James started at HFZ as a patent engineer, writing applications.

“It tapped into my education roots, because you’re essentially writing an instruction manual or a textbook,” he said.

Then, after a year, he decided to enter law school, finishing his degree at night while working for HFZ in the day – a path many of the firm’s attorneys were familiar with.

“If they can do it, I thought I could figure it out too. And these patent attorneys are all like me. They’re all technical,” James said. “The experience I got writing patent applications helped me a lot with the writing that was required in law school.

“What they told me was true.”

Today, James offers the same advice to aspiring patent lawyers that he once heard as an engineer.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s good work,” he said. “It’s fulfilling, it’s challenging, in multiple different ways. And you’re gonna grow a lot when you work here.”

From ‘stunted’ in an engineering role to ‘supported’ as a future patent attorney

Maggie joined HFZ shortly after starting her career as a mechanical engineer on the manufacturing floor of an aerospace company. Concerned her growth would be “stunted” in that role, she became interested in patent law and how it would allow her to use her degree and technical skills.

She applied for a job at HFZ and is in her second year as a patent engineer.

“I’m not a ‘sit back and let’s just coast right through the workday’ person,” Maggie said. “HFZ really pushes me. The attorneys have very high standards.”

She found her fellow patent engineers to be “some of the most motivating people ever.” They showed her how to balance work at HFZ with law school. HFZ’s mentorship program also added to her support system.

That convinced Maggie to go for her law degree.

“‘OK, I can do this,’” she told herself. “This is a great opportunity for me to pursue.”

Today, Maggie is six weeks into law school, taking advantage of the firm’s flex- and part-time policy that also gives employees time away from work for childcare or other responsibilities in addition to school work. HFZ also assigns each new employee to a mentor.

Before deciding to enter school, Maggie was “hyper vigilant” to how HFZ treated her fellow patent engineers who were in school, paying attention to their stress levels and workloads. Now she feels the same support when she needs to log off in the late afternoon to attend school.

“I knew going in that it would be a good situation,” she said of her decision to work and go to school.

Maggie said her confidence flourished from her first day at HFZ, when she was assigned a docket with her initials on it. In contrast with her engineering jobs, Maggie said she quickly felt comfortable adding her voice to discussions at HFZ.

“I’ve grown so much working for HFZ,” she said. “I feel supported and heard. I feel like I’m a member of the team. And I’m contributing, which is the best feeling to have in any job.”