Wittliff Cutter Austin, a small firm in Austin with clients in the technology sector, recently landed a new client that provides it with more than 700 potential clients—all members of a software and digital content trade association.
The Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) is an unusual sort of client for Wittliff Cutter, but the way the seven-lawyer firm landed the group as a client offers law firms a lesson on how long-term personal connections, even those spread across many miles, can lead to work.
Chris Mohr, SIIA’s general counsel and vice president for intellectual property, started at the trade association about 18 months ago. He is primarily responsible for representing the group on Capital Hill on intellectual property matters, and also for running an amicus program in connection with strategic litigation.
But the former appellate lawyer said it wasn’t long after he started the job that he began getting calls from SIIA members with legal problems, and he determined it would be helpful to members if he could refer them to a law firm for a consultation to answer their legal questions.
As soon as he decided to seek outside counsel, he put Wittliff Cutter on his short list. The firm was across the country in Austin, but he and Wittliff Cutter partner Jack Simms were longtime friends—a relationship that dated back to when the two lawyers were undergraduates at Haverford College near Philadelphia. Simms graduated in 1995, a few years after Mohr, But they got to know each other better over the years, as they both volunteered for alumni activities. For a time they both practiced in Washington, D.C.
“We used each other as professional sounding boards as we aged,” Mohr said.
After in-person visits to some of the firms on his list, including Wittliff Cutter, Mohr decided to hire the Austin firm.
“I trust Jack’s judgment in many respects. I know he’s a good lawyer from a really good firm, and that certainly helped,” he said, noting that he also considered the firm’s experience representing technology clients and its location in Austin, a growing tech hub.
Simms said Mohr spent a day and a half in Austin meeting all of Wittliff Cutter’s lawyers.
“[He was] placing our firm in a great position of trust for his organization,” he said. “He’s known me for a long time, but he wanted to meet my partners. One of the neat things about our relationship is my partners talk freely. …He needed that kind of flexibility and that comfort level.”
Wittliff Cutter won the contract to represent the SIIA last November. By December, Simms said the firm was fielding its first calls from SIIA members. So far, it has advised clients on some trademark cases before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and on privacy issues and revamping internal policies, he said.
Mohr said he gets up to three calls a week from members who have legal problems, including the dreaded “I’ve been sued.” The organization has been informing members about the contract with Wittliff Cutter, letting them know they have the option of bringing their legal issues and questions to the firm. Under the contract, SIIA members can get a free legal consultation. If they decide to hire the firm for legal work, they are then entitled to a negotiated, reduced rate.
Simms said he cannot reveal the rate his firm charges SIIA members, as the terms of the contract between the firm and SIAA are confidential. But he said it is less than standard Austin market rates.
Wittliff Cutter has litigation expertise and also does corporate, privacy, licensing and intellectual property work for technology clients, said Simms, who was previously a litigation partner at Boise Schiller Flexner in Washington, D.C. The attorney also formerly worked in-house at DuPont. In 2012, he left DuPont and moved to Austin with his family, after his wife, Mary Whittle, took a staff attorney job with Earthjustice. Simms said he was a stay-at-home dad to their young children for a time, but joined Wittliff Cutter as a partner in March 2016.
Over the years, meanwhile, Simms said he and Mohr stayed in touch, and Mohr started talking to him in 2016 about the idea of an outside consulting firm for the SIIA.
“It was sort of fortuitous. For a time [Mohr] was looking around for counsel to fill his needs,” Simms said. “I started at this shop and we connected again and started talking.”
Brenda Sapino Jeffreys reports on the business of law in Texas. Contact her at email@example.com On Twitter: @BrendaSJeffreys