IP boutique Harness, Dickey & Pierce has brought back a familiar face to take a brand new position. Bill Coughlin, who practiced at the firm for 17 years before starting an in-house career in 1995, rejoined the 100-lawyer, Troy, Michigan based firm last week as its first chief executive officer. He’s been tasked with overseeing the firm’s short and long-term strategic business planning, client development and firmwide operations.
It’s not Coughlin’s first CEO gig. As assistant general counsel at Ford Motor Co. he served as CEO of its IP subsidiary, Ford Global Technologies LLC, leading a team of 40 employees in five countries. We caught up with Coughlin, 66, earlier this week to talk about the perspective he brings as a former partner, a client of the firm, an executive and—most recently—an organic farmer.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Can you give us a little background about Harness Dickey?
A. The firm was started 99 years ago in downtown Detroit and moved out to the suburbs decades ago [now in Troy]. St. Louis and Reston, Virginia, are big offices for us, as well. We’ve planted a stake in Dallas and are gonna grow there as well. Could we go beyond that? It’s one of the issues I’m looking at: What can we do with what we’ve got? Where can we go from here, as we approach the second century of the firm?
Q. You have some unique qualifications for this job. But isn’t part of the idea of a CEO that you can get some nonlawyer perspective into the running of the business?
A. Absolutely true. Now, the firm has a terrific COO in Dave Roback, a business-oriented financial wizard. But are we used to looking at the legal practice with a business eye toward profitability of the work we’re doing? For example, let’s say the firm has a reasonable footprint in food tech. So what would it take to win more business in that area? Do we have the right talent? Do we have the right footprint? What clients can we serve really well that we should approach?
Q. What kind of technology does a firm like Harness Dickey need?
A. That’s one of the key questions, frankly, I need to answer. We have very good technology today with internal security, document management, a portal just for clients [where] they can get instant answers on what they have and where they have it. But, you know, the world is changing mighty fast. What worries me the most is the artificial intelligence developments. There’s an arms race coming where the Patent Office is going to have its set of tools to try to demonstrate that this patent shouldn’t be granted, and law firms are going to need their set of tools, going, “Wait a minute, oh yes [it should].” So it’s gonna be fun, and I want to make sure that we’re really on the edge of that.