Richard Kempner talks to JLife’s Laura Sefton about his career as an intellectual property lawyer, why he moved to Leeds and biscuit battles in the High Court.
Richard Kempner is an intellectual property (IP) lawyer with over 30 years’ experience who launched Kempner & Partners in Leeds in 2009. Although he is not from the city originally, Richard has made Leeds his home and a key base outside of London for those seeking IP instruction.
Did you always want to be a lawyer?
My kids ask me this all the time! Sadly it’s true: from about the age of 13 I wanted to be a solicitor. However, I didn’t know what kind of solicitor I wanted to be until I sat in my first IP lecture when I was in my second year at Durham University. I realised from that moment that IP was for me and I guess I’ve just been lucky ever since that moment.
My first role at Linklaters in London, which is one of the UK’s top five ‘magic circle’ law firms, was in IP and I was able to qualify in IP from there. For 20 years I was working in IP at Addleshaw Goddard in Leeds and then I set up Kempner & Partners. I’ve been very lucky to work in the field I love.
When did you move to Leeds?
I was originally brought up just outside of London in Northwood and was married at the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue. I moved to Leeds with my wife in 1990 and before we arrived here, we had no connections in the city at all.
We came to Leeds because we were looking to move out of London and discovered the city offered law firms that would do the specialist competition law work my wife did and IP work I was trained in. We were also looking for somewhere that had a substantial Jewish community, which Leeds has.
How often do you travel back to your roots?
I still have family down south, so I visit a lot. Work takes me across the country too. I travel to London, China and beyond. Our clients are all over the place – locally we have ASDA round the corner and Farrow & Ball in Dorset. We provide legal services for companies in London like Regus, the serviced office company; BASF, the chemical company in Germany, and designer Roberto Cavalli in Italy. With clients all over like that, travelling is an important part of what we do.
Those are big name clients. How do you end up working with them and what do you do for them?
IP law covers patents, copyrights, trademarks, confidential information, and the whole law regarding its protection, enforcement and defence. It varies from one extreme looking at alleged supermarket lookalike brands to complex chemical patent litigation, where people are enforcing their state-of-the-art patented technology against competitors – it’s very specialist. Most high street firms don’t do this type of law and most of them don’t have clients that need our services. Our firm only does that kind of work. So we’re niche because of our pared back business model but also because of the area of law we specialise in.
While we’re happy to work for anyone who needs our services, our top 20 or so clients are national and international household names, varying from JD Sports to Jet2.com. Word is out there that we’re here and we’re offering this unusual legal service outside of London, so I’d say we end up with these well-known clients through word of mouth and our reputation, doing work for great clients, and knocking on doors with a view to growing our business in case people don’t know how our business model is different to other firms.
How is your business model different?
When we started Kempner & Partners in 2009 we took the decision to cut out the overheads and all of the unnecessary departments that don’t benefit the client such as finance, marketing, HR, and realised we didn’t need the flashy offices all over the country that really just end up being justifications for law firms to charge very large amounts of money to justify their hourly rates. Instead, we cut back to the essentials of what clients want: excellent service, genuine expertise and partners that actually do the work rather than delegating down to the most junior person possible because that’s the only rate that clients are willing to pay. Therefore, we can provide a genuinely better service and our clients tell us they benefit from what we do.
In the last seven-and-a-half years it’s grown from four of us to 14. We’ve won awards including IP Law Firm of the Year, beating national and international players like Baker Mckenzie and specialist IP firms like Bristows and Bird & Bird. We’ve grown to have about 400 clients in that time, too.
What is a typical legal case for you?
The best way to explain what a typical case is for us is through examples of ones we’ve worked on. So when Roberto Cavalli launched his new Just Cavalli logo they were sued in the UK High Court for infringement of a trademark belonging, of all things, to a Muslim Sufi sect that has a religious symbol that looks a bit like the new JC logo. We were able, over the course of the litigation process and trial, to settle that case, enabling Cavalli to carry on using the logo and pay no money whatsoever.
Another is that we’re currently acting for JD Sports. We’re acting in High Court litigation against a Chinese company that turns over around £20 billion a year called JD.com so you can see that there’s scope for confusion. Customers have been going onto the wrong site and we’ve had to act for JD Sports to apply for a pan-European injunction to stop JD.com from trading in Europe.
In addition, we’re always advising clients and offering tips. We’re not just acting when people are in trouble but acting ahead of time to make sure no problem arises in the first place. We’re giving practical and commercial advice to clients on a weekly basis.
Is there a team working on each client?
We call it a one-stop-shop, where we have a combination of registered trademark attorneys and IP specialist solicitors all under the same roof and we range from people just qualified to people with over 30 years’ experience. For any client on any matter we put together a dedicated team to ensure they’re the right people providing the best advice for our clients at the most cost-effective price.
What has been the biggest case you’ve ever worked on?
I worked on a case for ASDA about 20 years ago, which was the first supermarket lookalike case ever to go to trial. United Biscuits, which owns Penguin biscuits, was suing ASDA for the launch of its Puffin biscuit. It was the first time a supermarket had actually been taken to court and mine was the first decision on a supermarket lookalike all those years ago.
Actually, it is still one of the leading authorities on cases of its kind. People still refer to that case and I gather from IP law students that it’s one of the main cases that they learn about.
And what was the outcome?
Well, Puffin chocolate biscuits can still be bought in ASDA. We spent six days in the High court with cross-examinations and a High Court judge who made the decision.
What was the most rewarding case you’ve worked on?
The Roberto Cavalli case was really rewarding. That was a great result. And in 2016 we achieved record damages of over £500,000 in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court for AP Racing. They faced an infringer producing the same callipers as the ones they’d had patented and we successfully enforced the patent. So there are so many career highlights I’m proud of.
What have been the stand-out moments of your career to date?
When we set up Kempner & Partners we took a big gamble, wondering whether there was a big enough market for what we do. We had no idea at the time that clients would make an exception for us rather than just using the big law firms they knew. So about a year in, by 2010, we knew the gamble we took had paid off.
Do you think the legal system has changed during your career?
IP law is changing on a weekly basis. We receive daily updates from specialist providers of the latest legal cases, judgements, statutes and proposals. Just keeping up with that is a weekly, even a daily, job. The goal posts are literally forever moving and we need to make sure we’re watching it happen and converting a simple change in the law to something our clients can understand and use in order to adjust their business behaviour.
What advice would you would give to someone who is considering going into law?
I’d suggest they make sure they are going into it for the right reasons i.e. that they want to make a real difference to the lives of the people they’re advising. This culture of making loads of money ends up being the wrong motivating force and you won’t have an interesting career if you just follow the money.
If you were to advise a budding lawyer who is planning on specialising in intellectual property law, what would be your main tip?
Read up about it and see whether what you’ve read excites you and interests you. If so, then go for it. It isn’t for everyone and to be a successful IP lawyer you really need to understand the intricacies of IP law. You have to be a particular type of person.
On a personal note, what makes Leeds special to you?
I love the combination of culture, easy travel within the city and beyond to London. We live near Roundhay Park, which is stunningly beautiful. The fact that you can be so centrally located and yet the countryside is on our doorstep and the airport is 15 minutes away. If you stop and think you can see how lucky we are here.
What do you do in your spare time?
Aside from walking the dog around the park I play competitive bridge and have singing lessons. My claim to fame was appearing as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof put on by my shul, Sinai Synagogue, a few years ago. I loved it but it was such hard work! My family is also a massive part of my life and doing things with them is a priority for me.