A Vista of the Future of ISO 9000 in the Intellectual Property Agency Industry

By Yu Gang,[Patent]

Accompanied by the development of global economic integration and the increasing internationalization of product and capital flow are the issues of international product quality assurance and product liability.

In 1980, the largest International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which was founded on February, 23rd in 1947, officially approved the establishment of the Technical Committee, i.e. ISO/TC176, Quality management and quality assurance, which is responsible for the enactment of the international standards for quality management. In 1987, “ISO 9000 family”, the first international standards for quality management applicable to all economic entities, organizations and institutions, came into existence, followed by the second edition in 1994. In December 2000, the third edition, i.e. ISO 9000:2000, was formally promulgated. ISO 9000 is a general denomination for quality management and quality assurance.

Under the deployment of the former China State Bureau of Standards, the “Special Working Group for the National Quality Assurance and Standardization” was formed in China. In December 1988, China adopted by equivalent ISO 9000 and formally promulgated the national standards: GB/T 10300, Quality Management and Quality Assurance, which was implemented as of August 1, 1989. In May 1992, China decided to adopt by equation ISO 9000, enacted and promulgated GB/T 19000-1992 Idt ISO 9000:1987 series standards. In 1994, China issued GB/T19000-1994 Idt ISO 9000 family of standards.

ISO 9000 quality management system applies to not only processing, manufacturing, servicing, but also legal services. However, it is rarely applied in the IP industry.

The application of ISO 9000 standards in legal services

The rendering of legal services is one way traffic, that is, the services provided to clients may not be easily or economically remedied through follow-up measures. Therefore, for quality assurance, practitioners in legal services industry must strictly grasp and control quality in each link of the services and ensure stability in the quality of service through the control of process. In terms of the law offices, in handling traditional litigation and arbitration services, they routinely follow the established service model inherited from prior habits and seldom seek to innovate and systemize the service process, thus rendering the service results in an uncertain state. In the meantime, the guidance of the legal services product on the market is far from adequate, which becomes the bottleneck for the leap-forward development of lawyers. In addition, in terms of the cultivation and reservation of special talents, most law offices lack talents cultivation awareness and systematic talents cultivation mechanisms.
As a new branch in the legal profession, the IP industry is not free from the above problems. In spite of the great development and progress in China’s IPR work in recent years, imperfection still exists with respect to the external supervision laws and regulations as well as the internal management system of self-restraint and self-improvement within the IP agencies. Along with China’s regard and concern for the IPR work, domestic IP business proliferates rapidly, followed by the growing increase of cases entertained by the IP agencies and of the processing work regarding the process transaction of cases. Moreover, IP cases generally have a cyclical characteristic. Therefore, relying solely on hand-workshop-style business management is far from adequate to meet the clients’ individualized demands as well as the demands of the situation that there is a constant increase in the volume of cases.   

In the meantime, with the development of the secondary and tertiary industry in China, high efficiency and high quality competition have become the major means of competition within these industries. Enterprises have realized that the external quality system requirement does not merely apply to parts manufacturers and providers and consistent requirements for quality management. It should also be imposed on the growing number of outsourcing service providers they have selected so as to reach a consensus on quality requirements and thus render smoother business cooperation and higher efficiency. Therefore, implementations of the ISO 9000 quality system and effective quality management have become the priority of the legal services industry. Only by steadily improving the quality of products and services and by making a commitment to the clients in respect thereof can the enterprises stand out in the fierce market competition.

In 2000, a law office in Shandong took the lead in passing the assessment and the auditing of the certification bodies at home and abroad, and became the first “ISO 9000 certified” law firm. Thereafter, ISO 9000 has been widely cited in the legal profession.

Based on the experience of many law offices, others have learned that the first thing that must be done in formulating a quality management system is to determine the points and the processes which need to be controlled. This is the key to whether an established quality management system is able to meet the requirements of the standard and whether it is appropriate and effective. In terms of the industry characteristics of law offices, the four main points that need to be controlled in the quality management systems thereof include:

1. Control of client needs assessment: This is the basis for the assurance of quality in service. Only through a full and comprehensive understanding of the clients’ needs and the identification of the law office’s capacity to meet the clients’ needs will it be possible to truly meet the clients’ needs. Satisfying client’s needs is fundamental to service. Cases should be categorized in light of their subject matter, facts, parties and etc. Different categories apply different assessment procedures.

2. Control of professional work products: This includes the drafting of complaints, making written statements, presenting case arguments, offering legal opinions, etc. presented during legal services activities. The writing of these instruments is also the embodiment of legal services quality.

3. Control of professional conduct: Professional conduct is a concrete embodiment of the service quality of a law office. Normative documents should be employed in regulating lawyers’ professional conduct. For example, formulating a Service Manual and formalizing documents and forms, requiring employees to operate in accordance with the prescriptions of the normative documents to avoid errors, omissions or even staff’s arbitrariness are essential for controlling professional conduct.

4. Control of evidentiary material: Evidentiary material is the basis for a lawyer’s ability to handle cases. Effective identification, comprehensive analysis and reasonable use of evidentiary materials are the key to the handling of cases. Thus, Evidentiary Material Control Procedures should be formulated. A set of unified process concerning signing for, collation, analysis and cataloging of the materials should be formed. In addition, special measures for safeguarding evidentiary materials should be adopted to prevent loss, damage or leakage of the materials.

In an effort to guarantee the smooth and effective implementation of the above control procedures, various law offices, in their normal operations, need to establish as set of implementing rules and format files based on the their own situations.

A vista of the future of ISO 9000 in IP industry

In the IP industry, with the expansion of business of various agencies and the increase in the number of cases, higher demand will be put forward by products as to the timeliness and accuracy of business information systems. There is great difficulty with regard to the control of time limits involved in each case. Take for example an ordinary invention patent (having been granted but having no priority). Many deadlines will be involved from the early communications with the clients as to the expiration of the validity period of 20 years, including:

  Official deadlines for making corrections, voluntary amendments, response to Office Actions, obtaining letters patent, and for paying annuities or fees, etc.

 Work flow constraint for replying to client inquiries, handling documents, drafting new applications, filing new applications, sending reminders, providing agent’s reports, forwarding official papers, requesting substantive examinations, reporting Office Actions, and for reviewing Office Actions.

Note: For an average patent application for an invention, the entire life span may involve an average of 45 deadlines to be met. Deadlines prior to issuance must be closely watched, while the rest are more or less regular and can be monitored on a time circle basis.

The above is just an example of the deadline control in one case. If the volume of cases is accepted by an IP agency increases from 100 to 1,000, the agency may still be able to manage the operations by manual control. However, if the cases are multiplied from 1,000 to 5,000 or even more, it seems that an efficient, steady and accurate control of these deadlines would be well beyond the power of a few EXCEL sheets or other common office software applications. At this point, the guarantee of consistency between the product and the quality control standard needs not only a strict control of the whole workflow of the product, but also the support of a perfect IT system.

Additionally, the rapid increase of IP staff and the constant expansion of agency business impose an accelerating demand on the agents’ professional knowledge structure and professionalism. However, due to the younger team of IP agents and the growing trend toward specialization, there is a large gap between the rapid expansion of the IP agent team and the speed of improvement in the agents’ professional ability. In the meantime, the increasing mobility of the practitioners in this industry poses another challenge to the management and services of these IP agencies. The traditional management methods followed by the agencies before, such as chuan bang dai (passing on the experience and helping and guiding the young and middle-aged), or a master teaching his or her apprentice during work, cannot meet the ever-changing market demand.

Thus, as with a law office, an IP agency should design standardized training contents and training courses in light of different positions and different business needs. The agency must raise its staff’s forward-looking, systematic, scientific and normative awareness of the industry. While conducting talent cultivation and reservation in cooperation with the relevant government departments, an IP agency should also enhance its staff’s ability to deal with foreign-related matters. This would further expand the influence of China’s legal services in the world, and improve the ability of lawyers and agents in their handling of international affairs and foreign-related business.

Faced with the intense market competition, an IP agency should, in the process of occupying the market, phase in quality management systematically while achieving self-development, thereby providing clients with high-quality agency services and allowing clients access to commitment to product and service quality. The demand of economic globalization and the era of knowledge-based economy make it important to introduce the ISO 9000 quality system into the legal services and strengthen quality management and enhance lawyers’ quality assurance capacity. This can be done in the following three aspects:

1. Implementing standardized management system and establishing high-quality work flow systems.

In the legal profession, even the handling of documents requires systemized control and management for the level of readers, delivery or communication. Therefore, a scientific and pragmatic services workflow can help improve the efficiency of services and reduce the waste of resources and increase client satisfaction. To go into detail, process should be the refinement of management system at the operational level. It is behavior guidance, guiding the staff on how to complete tasks, or how to handle the problems they encounter. The process is, just like the signs on a freeway telling people where to go, somewhat like a “user manual.”

The clarification of the work content assumed by various posts, quality requirements and controllable resources can make the staff choose the configuration of resources which they have the right to control and use, exercise decision-making power in accordance with the established requirements and standards, and assume corresponding responsibility for their decisions, thereby improving efficiency and reducing error rate. In business process management (BPM), determining in advance the specific methods and procedures that each job role will follow in completing his or her work and making him or her consider such issues such as to how to make further improvements and innovations, and how to improve efficiency and effectiveness without, in respect of methods and procedures, crossing the rivers by feeling the stones and making unnecessary explorations.

ISO 9000 treats the process management as an important principle in quality management, emphasizing the control of the operational path needed in each process of the service and the monitoring of the key points of the process. This makes the workflow and staff’s work method standardized and can help improve efficiency and reduce error rate and especially improve the quality and efficiency of services.

2. Enhancing investment in IT software system, supporting standardized management and improving the efficiency of business processing.

The development and application of business support systems (BSS) can render high efficiency and high accuracy in time limit control, case management, billing management as well as client information management and payment management. This will effectively shorten the development cycle and reduce development cost, and can also provide favorable support to the quality control system through the combination of one’s own needs and the realization of module function of business system.

At work, we often categorize problems into general problems and complicated problems. General problems refer to those that have their inherent laws and the study of the curves thereof can help to improve efficiency and reduce errors. Complicated problems are those whose inherent laws are difficult to grasp and the command thereof requires the accumulation of experience and long-term summarization. For general problems, the process can be solidified and standardized via business systems after induction and summarization, thereby avoiding unnecessary human errors and repetitive work. Thus, the establishment and reconstruction of software business systems can remarkably improve the efficiency of case flow within IP enterprises

3. Perfecting training mechanism and ensuring the steady improvement of agents’ quality.

For an enterprise to achieve the goal of choosing the right person for the right job and retaining that person there must be a set of management processes, evaluation systems and incentive mechanisms in combination with ISO 9000. This kind of cultivation mechanism renders the traditional management method of “passing on, helping and guiding” an “alternative training,” which can not only shorten the cultivation cycle but also ensure the consistency between quality level and professional quality.

To sum up, due to the successful application of ISO 9000 in the legal profession, a consensus has been reached between the legal services industry and other industries as to the requirement in equivalent systems and the control on quality requirements, which ensures the consistency of quality levels. Since the IP industry is in the process of marketization and socialization and is transforming from the initial stage of start-up to the direction of professionalization and standardization, the application of ISO 9000 quality management system in IP industry is bound to bring about significant changes to the quality management of the IP industry. The quality of IP services directly decides the fate of an IP enterprise. Only by constantly improving and optimizing the work flow and work mode and focusing on the quality of IP services can we go faster and farther on this market-oriented and client-oriented IP road.

About the author:

Yu Gang, a managing partner of Beijing Kangxin Intellectual Property Agency Co., Ltd.

 (Translated by Zhang Meichang)


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