Read the key figures from our first survey of US law firms, conducted with the help of Fox Rodney Search and published in our May issue, and you could only conclude that times are good for US IP lawyers. Among the highlights are: two-thirds of firms say partners earn on average at least $500,000; more than half say associates take home at least $150,000; and most are planning to add more lawyers in the coming year.
Given the state of the world economy for the past five years, I think people in most industries would be happy with similar figures. When I spoke to Michael Ellenhorn of Fox Rodney this week, he was clear about his view from the coal-face: “IP work in the United States is definitely on an upward trajectory.”
What’s more, there are signs that things will get busier. These figures reflect work before many of the changes brought about by the America Invents Act came into effect, including the new procedures before the USPTO which are surely likely to create more work for patent lawyers, and lead to more spending on patent work. Meanwhile, the federal courts and ITC still seem pretty busy with complex telecoms, computer software and biotech disputes.
But the question is: who is going to do all this work? In many areas, law firms have little or no trouble in recruiting. But, according to our survey, there is one exception: more than half of the firms that took part said electrical engineering was the skill set their practice most needed, and it was firms with higher IP revenues who needed them most.
As Ellenhorn (left) says: “The US is not producing enough electrical engineers, especially enough of them who want to become patent lawyers.” One of the problems, as one engineer told us, is that training to be a patent attorney takes three years and costs a fortune. While the ultimate rewards are high (as our survey shows) you have to work long hours for several years before you can enjoy them. That is not a tempting enough offer for bright graduates when there are attractive alternatives in other industries.
I’d be interested to know if readers share these concerns and if so what they think the solution is. I expect it’s not simple – and probably involves discussing education and immigration as well as IP policy.
Ironically, our survey was published in the same month as the Federal Circuit’s decision in CLS Bank v Alice. In her opinion in that case, Judge Moore said that decision is the “death of hundreds of thousands of patents” including at least all of the 320,799 US patents granted from 1998 to 2011 in the Electrical Computers, Digital Processing Systems, Information Security, Error/Fault Handling technology area. If she’s right, then maybe we don’t need to worry: there will soon be no work at all for electrical engineer patent attorneys! Somehow, though, I think it would be prudent to plan for the opposite result.