Pingel gets back to basics
In the paradoxical twists fate sometimes takes, Brian Pingel saw his former law firm’s strength becoming its weakness.
When the Pingel & Templer law firm dissolved in January, it wasn’t for lack of business. As the reputations of the four attorneys in the firm’s intellectual property group grew, so did the demand for their services. With a deep stable of clients that promised to become deeper because of the exponential growth in the practice of intellectual property law, the group was a rainmaker for the firm.
Intellectual property law has “grown by leaps and bounds for 10 years, as more and more companies realize how important it is to protect their technologies and the research they put into developing those technologies,” said Pingel, one of the firm’s founders and head of its IP group. That’s especially true in Iowa, where companies are typically smaller than their competitors and “need that patent to be able to compete effectively,” he said. “To them, a successful patent can be their lifeblood.”
Still, the lawyer worried. The future looked promising, yet precarious. Litigation involving intellectual property rights is notoriously complex, and with millions of dollars and future business survival at stake, a court battle often is a foregone conclusion. Pingel & Templer had only four attorneys in its IP group, and “if we got involved in a major piece of patent litigation, it would be hard to handle,” Pingel said. In a profession where survival hinges on customer service, “we could have two attorneys working solely on it, creating problems with the rest of the clients.”
A sense of urgency among clients seeking protection for their ideas and inventions only compounded Pingel’s dilemma. As problems go, rapid growth isn’t a horrible one to tackle, but Pingel recognized that it put the firm at a crossroads. “We were reaching the stage where we had to either stay smaller or get bigger,” he said. “It’s hard to be in the middle.”
That it was Pingel’s problem to worry about was inescapable — and burdensome for the attorney who yearned to just practice law. Intrigued by science as a youngster and an electronic wizard who repaired televisions and vending machines to help pay for an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Iowa, Pingel entered law school at the University of Nebraska with the goal of blending his interest in technology with the practice of law. Intellectual property law was a perfect avenue. And he clearly enjoyed himself.
Pingel, who has practiced law since passing the bar exam in 1970, ticks off victories in the intellectual property arena as if they’re cherished relics from the past. He was on the winning side of a highly publicized dispute in the early 1990s between the owner of The Tavern pizzeria in West Des Moines and a former manager who had been fired and took some of the recipes for The Tavern’s pizza sauce, pizza crust and grinder sandwiches to a new job at Mustards Restaurant. Pingel won a $400,000 judgment for his client. He successfully defended the Godfather’s Pizza chain in patent litigation, too. Bigger, though, was a patent dispute Pingel litigated for Vermeer Manufacturing Co. against John Deere & Co. in the early 1970s. Most manufacturers of large round balers used on farms throughout the United States use technology licensed by Vermeer. The case was a huge victory for the Pella-based manufacturer.
Pingel missed those times, when 10 hours a day were devoted to serving clients and helping to cement their places in the business world, and not to the day-to-day tasks required to keep a law firm operating smoothly. In the past five years, he had steadily extracted himself from management responsibilities, but still devoted about 10 hours a week to routine administrative tasks.
Ultimately, Pingel traded it all in – the strategic planning, the management responsibilities, his name on the door – for the intimacy of working more closely to fulfill clients’ needs. He took a job with Brown, Winick, Graves, Gross, Baskerville and Schoenebaum, which opened an office in West Des Moines’ Regency West office park in January. The three attorneys in his IP group – Camille Urban, Mike Dee and Adam Jones – followed Pingel to Brown Winick and the remaining Pingel & Templer shareholders voted to dissolve the firm.
The move to the larger, 50-plus-lawyer Brown Winick firm required little adjustment for the attorneys, who work autonomously on intellectual property cases at their new firm. A major difference for Pingel is that he’s no longer involved in firm decisions.
Initially, firm management was attractive to Pingel, and he served as Pingel & Templer’s president for a number of years. But eventually the strain began to show. “Rather than dealing with clients and meeting their needs, I was involved in making decisions about how your particular organization is going to operate,” he said.
“I’m still a member and have a responsibility at member meetings, but I didn’t have to be on the board of directors. I can concentrate on serving clients, and we are in the service business. They don’t appreciate the fact that when they want something done, you may have some management duties that get in the way.”
Pingel’s retreat from management reflects a national trend. The NALP Foundation, a research affiliate of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Law Placement, reported last year that many lawyers are asking themselves if making partner or managing director is worth the sacrifices that are required. According to the report, which focused attention on attrition among associates who graduated from law school between 1998 and 2002, “associates voiced strong reservations about their desire to achieve partnership status, observing that the lifestyles of partners and the necessary sacrifices partners make in their personal lives led associates to question whether that professional goal meshed with their own goals.”
Currently juggling the demands of a couple of major patent infringement cases, Pingel is back in his element, practicing intellectual property law according to a code of ethics and personal code of conduct that have been his trademarks during his 34-year legal career. He gives special credit to a mentor at 3M Co., a major client of the Minneapolis law firm where he worked in the early days of his career.
“It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he used integrity in his practice,” Pingel said. “Different attorneys approach patent litigation issues in different ways. At the time I was dealing with stuff for 3M, I was opposed by attorneys on the East and West coasts in a lot of different cases, and attorneys in those areas had a different code of conduct.”
Pingel said “it would have been easy to adapt to that style,” but he chose a different path.
“Some attorneys are looser with the facts than others, but I was taught you have to maintain your credibility with the judge and jury. Credibility is the most important thing you have — whatever argument you make has to be consistent with the facts, not just supported by them. If you distort them and your evidence doesn’t support the argument, people are going to say, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on?’ You have to guard your credibility.”
Pingel’s name isn’t on the door of the Brown Winick law firm, but he’s content that he made the move to a situation he craved during his final days at his own firm. “My wife mentioned I’m probably in a better disposition,” he joked. “It’s taken a lot of the pressure off, and I think my group is happier, too.”