There are not many lawyer-specific iPhone apps available, and many of the most useful -- for example, the great FRCP app recently reviewed on this site -- have been written by attorney Cliff Maier of WaffleTurtle Software. Cliff is an Intellectual Property attorney in the Palo Alto office of the prestigious Mayer Brown law firm. Click this button to see all of the current iPhone apps by Cliff Maier:
I recently caught up with Cliff to talk to him about his double-identity as an IP lawyer by day and an iPhone app programmer by night. Cliff has some interesting thoughts and the road that led him to developing apps for the iPhone is fascinating. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed talking to Cliff.
iPJD: What kind of law do you practice?
Maier: My practice is now almost entirely intellectual property litigation, and, of that, almost all of the litigation is patent-related. I do a little licensing work, a little of what patent folks call "clearance" work, and a little bit of "opinion of counsel" work, as well. Although I don't do much now, I've also done a fair amount of patent prosecution work (I am a registered patent attorney).
iPJD: Can you tell us a little bit more about the patent law work do you do?
Maier: My practice has specialized in the technical areas associated with patent and copyright cases. My practice is probably not the sort of practice that would be very familiar to most attorneys, even most patent attorneys. I do my best to become an expert in the underlying technology, whether it be cryptographic algorithms, memory circuit designs, or software user interfaces. I try to get to the point where I could go get a job in that industry. This helps me make our expert witnesses more efficient, helps me locate potentially invalidating prior art, helps me communicate with our clients' engineers, helps me figure out reasons our client doesn't actually infringe, etc. It also enables me to easily punch holes in opposing experts' testimony and reports. In one big recent case, I actually got to use a couple of my own engineering journal publications as prior art in our patent invalidity case. That was great fun.
iPJD: What type of work did you do before you went to law school? I know that you obtained a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering in 1996.
Maier: After I got my Ph.D. in New York, I came out to Silicon Valley and worked at a start-up. It was the most fun I've ever had, but we went out of business eight months later. I was a chip designer, working on super-high-end microprocessors for Apple's Macintosh computers. I had a ton of responsibility because, despite being a youngster, I had spent four years working on exactly the same technology for my Ph.D. (and no one else in Silicon Valley other than the folks I was working with really understood the technology).
Maier: The name of the company was Exponential Technology. We were working on a 500MHz PowerPC back in the days of the PowerPC 601. Apple was an investor, back in the days when Gil Amelio was the CEO of Apple. We had working silicon and a big coming-out party at the Fairmont in San Jose with all the tech press. Apple fans used to send us mail offering to be janitors just so they could work for us. Then Steve Jobs came back to Apple and sort of put the kibosh on the whole thing.
iPJD: Where did you go after Exponential Technology?
Maier: I went to Sun to work on what we, at the time, called Ultrasparc V, but I quit after three months and went to AMD. At AMD I worked on K6-II, K6-III, and Opteron/Athlon 64. At AMD, I also had a lot of responsibility and we worked on very small teams. We had something like 18 main people working on the Opteron/Athlon 64. I worked there for 8 or 9 years, and eventually became the Manager for Advanced Development, which is where I started doing software programming as my main daily activity.
iPJD: What type of programming did you do?
Maier: My big programming projects were all "Electronic Design Automation." I wrote giant programs (sometimes mini-operating systems, really) that were used by chip designers to design microprocessors. Some of these were graphical, many were batch-type programs.
iPJD: So what made you decide to leave the microprocessor industry and become a lawyer?
Maier: When I started in Silicon Valley it was the tail end of the crazy days when you could start a microprocessor company and make something happen. That was no longer the case. I looked around and saw that there were no retirement-aged engineers, and not a lot of fun places left to go work. I decided I wanted to try something else. I was always very restless, anyway. I took the LSATs to see if I would get a good score. After my first year of law school (I went to Santa Clara University at night) I got a scholarship, and figured I might as well stick with it.
iPJD: Did you write programs for any smartphones before the iPhone?
Maier: I wrote some programs for Palm and Windows Mobile, but I never sold that stuff. I used it myself or gave it to my friends.
iPJD: What made you decide to start writing apps for the iPhone?
Maier: From the first day I saw the phone demo'd, I hoped they'd release an SDK. I started out writing apps that I, myself, wanted to have. And that's pretty much what I still do. Though the Colorado Civil Procedure Rules aren't of too much use to me, personally. :-) I'm always happy to help my fellow attorneys out, however.
iPJD: Where did the name of your company -- WaffleTurtle Software -- come from?
Maier: It came from an idea I had for a 2D scroller.
iPJD: I find FRCP, FRAP and many of your other reference apps very useful. [FRCP link: . FRAP link: ] It is so handy to have commonly used statutes and rules always with me on my iPhone. You already have about 20 of these types of apps on iTunes. Can you tell us about any more that are coming out soon?
Maier: Apple is reviewing "BailOut" (the bail out bill), but they've stalled for a month, and I wonder if they will reject it for political reasons. The Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure and the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence are also under review. I have about a dozen other requests, many of which are state rules, but also things like the federal sentencing guidelines, the patent office MPEP, etc. I'm getting to them as fast as I can. In the last couple of weeks, I've released the Minnesota UCC, the Delaware business code, and the Tennessee Rules of Evidence. I've also been revising the existing programs so they can talk to each other, and have added improved layout (bold face, italics, and elimination of stray horizontal lines). Apple is currently reviewing updates to several apps which have these changes.
Maier: Patents is an app that I use all the time. I need to keep track of patent claims and other important patent information (priority dates, etc.), and this app lets me find that stuff quickly, organize it by matter number, and store it away for off-line access. So when a partner says "doesn't claim 4 require a left-handed widget?" I can give him the answer immediately.
iPJD: Are you working on any other apps related to the practice of law?
Maier: I am working on a simple, single-purpose time-tracking app called BillTarget. This app will allow an attorney who has a billable hours goal to enter his or her billable hours target, set holidays and vacation days, input the billable hours to date and then the app will tell you what you need to bill per work day for the rest of the year to stay on track with your billable hour goal. This app will help attorneys to budget their time. I actually released the app on iTunes a few days ago, but pulled it before anyone bought it to address a few minor bugs. I resubmitted it, but I'm not entirely happy with the user interface and will be working on improving it over the course of a few updates. I've also got a few other things in mind, but I'm always eager to receive good ideas.
iPJD: Speaking as one of the countless iPhone-using attorneys who is about to start working on a new billable hour goal with the start of the new year, I look forward to using BillTarget when it is out! I see that you have also found the time to write some apps unrelated to the practice of law. Can you tell us a little about those?
iPJD: How does writing apps for the iPhone compare to writing programs for other platforms?
iPJD: How long does it usually take to write an iPhone app?
iPJD: Given the amount of time that goes into writing an app, do you consider it financially rewarding to write iPhone apps?
Maier: I had several apps in the store on opening day. In the early days, the money was very good. Now, not so much. I have around thirty apps in the store right now. The law apps probably average about one sale a day. It's enough to support my gadget obsession and supplement my income, but I won't be quitting my day job. I work for a big law firm, so the tradeoff between time spent billing hours and the time spent working on the apps is a little difficult to calculate. Luckily (?), there isn't enough legal work to keep me busy 24/7, so I don't have to choose. In this first year I will probably make about 2/3 of my legal salary due to the first couple of months of sales, but next year will undoubtedly be much less.
iPJD: Have you thought about different business models for selling iPhone apps?
Maier: I'm experimenting with different prices and different ways of marketing, but Apple ties my hands to some extent. For example, if I could, I'd experiment with things like buy three apps, get one free, or a subscription model where each app costs $0.99 per year (to help offset the time I must spend each year updating the apps as the statutes change). Or I'd have each app discretely suggest my other apps. (Some iPhone app sellers do this, but Apple frowns on it.) I'm also working to increase the value proposition of purchasing multiple apps by having the apps communicate with each other and allowing you to jump from rule to relevant rule between apps; the first wave of the updated apps is currently awaiting approval by Apple.
iPJD: Being a lawyer and being a programmer seem like such different professions. How do you compare the two?
Maier: These are completely different non-overlapping fields. In programming, or in engineering, you are trained to get to the answer. In law, the story you tell and the way you convince someone of the answer is far more important. Heck, in law there isn't always a right answer. The head of intellectual property at my firm loves to tell the story of how, when I was a summer associate, he asked me to do one of those typical memos. The memo I turned in was only a half-page long. I answered his question correctly, cited the relevant cases, and that was it. He had been expecting ten pages full of case cites, with explanation of why these were all irrelevant. Luckily, he appreciated my approach -- other attorneys may not have been so appreciative! I'm not bad at telling the story or at finding ways to craft the facts and the law into a compelling argument, but many engineers would be wholly unsuited to litigation work because of the complete difference in mindset.
iPJD: Is anything the same in both jobs?
Maier: The biggest crossover is logic. Programmers have no choice to think logically. Experienced programmers think about the world differently than "normal" people. When writing a brief, it's always helpful when there's an underlying logic to the thing. :-)
iPJD: Is there any other way that your programming experience has helped you as a lawyer?
Maier: My background certainly helps with marketing. We've definitely generated initial interest by floating my resume around to potential clients, and we've gotten to make specific pitches because the technology matches my experience. As a first year associate, I flew to Asia to meet with a potential client. It's not too uncommon to find Ph.D.'s who've gone into law, but most don't go into litigation, and few of those have actually worked in the industry for a decade. And having experience in both hardware and in software has been a big help.
iPJD: Your success my cause some other lawyers with a technical background to want to try to write iPhone apps. Can you offer any advice for those just starting out on writing apps for the iPhone?
Maier: They should feel free to contact me. The first step is to learn objective-C. There are lots of good books on the subject. For a C++ programmer, objective-C is pretty easy to learn once you get past the "weird" syntax. The other advice is this: don't think you're going to get rich. The economics of the app store right now are that you have a tiny chance of making a lot of money, and a huge chance of making hardly any at all. Do it because you need something you can't get from someplace else, do it for the technical challenge or the personal satisfaction, or do it to help society. Don't do it for the money. For me, the law is why I leave my house every day, but engineering is my passion.
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A big iPhone J.D. thank you goes to Cliff Maier for sharing his insight and his experiences. For many of us, third party apps are the best thing about the iPhone, and it is interesting to hear from someone who is creating many of the great apps that attorneys use on their iPhones every day.