Patent Lawyer Demand Rises Following U.S. Legislative Overhaul

Patent attorneys, who typically have degrees in fields such as engineering as well as law, are in such demand that their specialty may account for more than 15 percent of law firm job openings while representing just 3 percent of U.S. lawyers.

Some law firms are almost doubling recruitment fees to meet the growing demand for intellectual property specialists, particularly in the technology sector, said T.J. Duane, a principal at legal recruitment firm Lateral Link.

“There is a boom in IP with many openings in what is usually a niche practice,” Duane said in a telephone interview.

There are more than 230 open positions for patent lawyers among the more than 1,400 nationwide for all attorneys, with the majority in the San Francisco Bay area, home to Silicon Valley, Duane said. About 60 posts have been open since July. Another 25 were added last month, he said.

“The quantity of qualified attorneys who can perform this work is limited,” Duane said.

Lateral hires among law firms are on the rise after two years of decline. They jumped 38 percent last year after plummeting 52 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to a report by the National Association of Law Placement. Hiring among law school graduates continues to weaken as large law firms filled fewer positions. The employment rate among U.S. law school graduates fell 4.7 percent last year, NALP said.

IP Lawyer Demand

The IP lawyer demand can be attributed in part to the America Invents Act, the biggest overhaul to the U.S. patent system in six decades. The legislation, which changes how patents are processed and reviewed, is spurring a race among law firms for star talent in a small pool of patent attorneys.

About 40,000 patent attorneys and agents are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, having passed a separate patent bar examination, according to the office.

While patent agents have taken the patent exam, they aren’t lawyers who have taken state bar tests, the patent office said on its website. Agents can prepare patent applications and conduct cases before the patent office, though they can’t litigate in court or draw up contracts.

“These are hard people to find,” Barton E. Showalter, chairman of the IP department at Baker Botts LLP in Dallas, said of qualified patent attorneys.

About 1.2 million lawyers are licensed in the U.S., according to the American Bar Association.

Patent Act

The patent act, the culmination of more than a decade of negotiations and lobbying, is putting a high premium on the best patent lawyers, Showalter said.

“It’s an exceedingly complex law now with a number of new procedures,” Showalter said. “That puts a premium on highly technical-skilled patent lawyers.”

In addition to patent reform, law firms are being pressured by technology clients who have expanded into new growth areas such as cloud computing, Mark J. Itri, head of the IP practice group at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, said in a telephone interview from his office in Irvine, California.

Some companies have also consolidated the number of patent lawyers they work with to cut costs, Itri said.

“Near term, you’ll see a big demand to hire to meet some of those client needs,” Itri said.

McDermott has hired 28 patent attorneys and patent agents so far this year, adding roughly a dozen last month alone, as it seeks to expand its patent prosecution practice. The firm plans to hire another 20 by next spring, Itri said. Finding the right talent for the group hasn’t always been easy, he said.

Highly Sought Degrees

The most highly sought degrees held by patent attorneys are in electrical engineering, computer science and computer engineering, Duane said.

The ideal candidate would hold a doctoral degree in electrical engineering, have graduated from a top 10 law school and have worked for four years at a strong law firm, Duane said.

“That person could get a job anywhere,” he said.

The pool of potential hires narrows once you subtract retirees and non-practicing lawyers from the registered patent attorneys in the U.S., Itri said. Broken down by specialty, the most sought-after now are those with experience in software, telecommunications and the Internet, Itri said.

If the talent isn’t available, Duane said, “some firms may end up closing their positions or repurposing the general practice attorneys to focus on the nontechnical sides of these complex cases.”

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