November 10, 2013 11:03 pm

Patent wars fuel growth of jobs in intellectual property law

File photo of an illustration of Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S4 and Apple's iPhone 5 in Seoul©Reuters

As patent law courts have become a key corporate battle ground, lawyers who specialise in the field of intellectual property (IP) are in high demand.

The so-called “patent wars” that have raged between smartphone-makers such as Apple and Samsung illustrate the importance of IP rights to the success of companies in the knowledge-based economy.

High-profile cases such as this are only the tip of the iceberg, however. “Patent litigation has skyrocketed over the past few years,” says Mark Lemley, professor at Stanford Law School.

Companies are spending billions of dollars on developing their patent portfolios and protecting their rights from infringement. Threats come not only in the form of competitors but also “patent trolls”, outfits that amass patents solely to seek rent on their application.

The impact for companies – particularly information technology companies – is that protecting their knowhow becomes a substantial part of their business, says Prof Lemley. Though the overall legal market has been suffering, he says, IP-related work has continued to prove a robust and growing source of law graduate jobs. “There is [therefore] a lot of demand for people who can get their head around patent law.”

Many leading law schools, it would appear, are responding to the market’s call.

Stanford is one of a number of US law schools that specialise in the field of IP, core aspects of which include copyright, patents and trademarks. The school offers a number of popular courses in IP law for students taking its Juris Doctor (JD) degree. “A remarkable number of our students end up in IP in some form or other, whether in law firms, technology companies or start-ups,” says Prof Lemley.

“If you want to be in business today, you need to know about intellectual property law,” says Maureen O’Rourke, dean of Boston University School of Law. “IP touches so many areas. Even if you’re a transaction lawyer you’ll run into IP law.”

Student demand to attend IP-related modules has continued to grow at Boston, says Prof O’Rourke, as law firms increasingly look to recruit graduates who have developed practitioner skills during their degree. “The subject [of IP] connects to the end goal of each student, and that is to get a job.”

Boston University also offers a specialised master of laws degree (LLM) in intellectual property law, designed for practising legal professionals. Students enrolled on the degree “span the spectrum” of legal backgrounds, says Prof O’Rourke.

Though graduates from the LLM go in many directions, she says that an increasing number are going into public policy making. “IP protection has become so important to the [US] economy ... [and] it has been a conscious policy choice by the US government for strong IP protection in trade negotiations,” says Prof O’Rourke.

The Singapore government’s goal to become a knowledge-based economy has prompted the National University of Singapore to specialise in IP law over the past decade, according to Ng-Loy Wee Loon, vice-dean of academic affairs at the law school.

If you want to be in business today, you need to know about intellectual property law. IP touches so many areas. Even if you’re a transaction lawyer you’ll run into IP law

- Maureen O’Rourke, Dean of Boston University School of Law

The government’s interest in the field means law firms in the country want students to have acquired knowledge of IP. “Students want training contracts with legal firms, so the whole thing feeds on itself,” says Prof Ng-Loy. IP law modules are therefore always oversubscribed at the university, she says.

NUS – like Stanford Law School – offers a specialised LLM on IP law that targets international lawyers. Stanford’s LLM in Law, Science and Technology – whose students are mainly practitioners in some form of technology law – emphasises cultural exchange. “They are interested in learning about US perspectives but each also brings their own background [to the classroom],” says Prof Lemley.

The history of IP law at the School of Law at Queen Mary, University of London, dates back to 1980 when Herchel Smith, inventor of the contraceptive pill, funded the university’s first chair in the field.

Queen Mary’s Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS) offers both an LLM in IP law – targeting legal professionals – and an MSc in the Management of IP, aimed at non-lawyers. Many MSc students are scientists looking at becoming patent agents, says Spyros Maniatis, the centre’s director.

The LLM, which covers core IP subjects from international and comparative perspectives, attracts “students who want to learn the specialist language of IP law”, says Prof Maniatis. “A growing number of EU students want to create a niche for themselves ... to get into large continental law firms,” he says.

This year, the CCLS established a legal incubator, qLegal, where Queen Mary students provide pro bono legal and regulatory advice to early-stage start-up companies, under the guidance of law firm professionals and professors. The focus will be primarily on companies in the IT sector, for whom IP rights are critically important.

Both Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania Law School have established similar clinics focusing specifically on IP. Students involved with Stanford’s IP and Innovation Clinic work full-time for a term, giving them an intense immersion into work as lawyers in the field, says Prof Lemley.

Prof Maniatis says that more small- and medium-sized companies are realising the importance of IP law, both to stop others using their knowhow and to exploit what they have. The latter, he says, offers a role for IP lawyers to go beyond protecting exclusive rights to spotting business opportunities. “This is a value-adding nuance that a good IP lawyer should have today.”

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