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.”