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Boutique firm's international scope

Six-lawyer operation finds clients at major global corporations

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Stephen Baker says his firm's highly specialized approach has brought it steady business.
Stephen Baker says his firm's highly specialized approach has brought it steady business. - (Aaron Houston)

With growth of more than 10 percent a year, Baker & Rannells makes the case that a boutique law firm with specialized expertise can compete with big, multipractice firms. And by way of proof, Stephen L. Baker's Raritan-based firm handles intellectual property matters around the world, from China to Texas.

The firm represents a number of large companies, including Brooks Brothers and Goya Foods, and does a lot of work for alcoholic beverage firms worldwide, including the Bottle King chain in New Jersey. The practice specializes in patents, copyrights, trademark and unfair competition.

"If someone comes to us and says, 'I want you to file a trademark application, take a look at this lease and handle my divorce,' well, we can't do all that; we are highly specialized," Baker said. Yet "our client base grows every week, for the most part because of the relationships we have built over the years."

Baker uses various strategies to attract clients, from traditional to high tech. For instance, potential clients find his firm online when looking for law firms that do a large number of filings with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, and Baker speaks to business groups on IP issues.

"Twenty years ago, I went to Texas and spoke to the wine and spirits association, and ended up with clients all over the country, mostly retailers in the alcoholic beverage business," he said.

That also got him into international work: Baker went to the Northern California wine country of Napa Valley in October, where "I was asked to speak to lawyers and winemakers about protecting your intellectual property in China." For years now, the firm has done work in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, recently hiring an attorney who grew up in Taiwan.

Baker said there is a growing two-way trade in alcoholic beverage between the United States and Asia, and trademarks have to be registered in every country where the products are sold.

Sometimes, Baker will land a new client by paying close attention to the patent office's weekly list of new trademarks that have been filed or approved. Several years ago, he noticed a trademark application for Zaba's, a gourmet grill, so Baker alerted Zabar's, the New York gourmet food chain, leading to Zabar's becoming a client.

Joel A. Rose, a Cherry Hill-based management consultant who advises law firms, said small, boutique law firms are competing successfully in a variety of legal specialties, including intellectual property, environmental law, personal injury litigation and appellate law.

Rose said some lawyers prefer the independence of a boutique, which can give them more control over the clients they represent, the hours they work and the size of their fees. A veteran intellectual property attorney who joins a large law firm may have to charge higher hourly rates — which might drive away old clients who were used to paying less.

But Rose said there also are advantages to being part of the intellectual property practice in a very large firm. "You may do a lot of work for other partners in the firm whose clients need IP work," thus getting a more stable pipeline of new clients and revenue.

About 15 years ago, there was a major push by big firms to acquire IP boutiques, Rose said, as "many of these large, general law firms did not have nearly the level of sophistication in their IP department that the boutique firms had." The big firms had to acquire IP boutiques "to become more of a full-service law firm for their existing and potential clients."

Baker said there are ways for his firm to operate globally, even with just six attorneys. When representing a client in California, for example, the firm hires local counsel for routine matters, like scheduling conferences, "but if there is a motion for a preliminary injunction or a hearing, we get on a plane and we go."

He said his father, S. Stephen Baker, who founded the firm in Manhattan in 1947, "told me that every case you do is the most important case you will ever work on, and if you get paid, fine, but that is not the goal. The goal is to do the best job you can, and the money will come."

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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