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With their need for both technical expertise and legal skills, patent law firms understand the challenges of securing the right talent.
Pandemic-induced remote working, as well as the emergence of new fields of innovation such as artificial intelligence, have increased the difficulties in acquiring and developing the most able patent attorneys.
“There is only a finite quantity of patent attorneys in Europe, if you’re looking at good ones, and we want the very best, with top degrees and often PhDs,” says Hugh Goodfellow, managing partner at Carpmaels & Ransford, a European IP-focused firm.
But while the profession has always had to work hard to secure talented individuals, Statista research commissioned by the Financial Times suggests some think it is getting harder. In the survey, a “looming lack of qualified staff” was ranked second, after digitisation, as a concern for both firms and their clients.
Part of the challenge is that the tech industry offers lucrative salaries and fast-moving careers — in sectors such as electric vehicles and data analytics — to the same PhD graduates from which patent law firms draw their talent.
This is particularly true in AI, says Jan Walaski, managing partner at London-based Venner Shipley. “That’s one of the fastest-growing fields for us,” says Walaski, who heads the firm’s electronics and engineering team. “We certainly have trouble recruiting in that area — probably primarily because there’s now a lot of competition with the tech firms.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic has boosted the volume of work for many patent attorneys, says Goodfellow, as a result of advances in vaccines and other technologies. “More innovation is happening, particularly in the life sciences,” he says. “We can’t hold the door shut against the tide of work at the moment so we need more people, and they need to be good.”
Data from the European Patent Office supports his experience. Overall, the number of European patent applications filed in 2020 remained high, falling 0.7 per cent from the previous year’s record number, in spite of the pandemic. Medical technology led the field in terms of volume, with pharmaceuticals and biotechnology the fastest-growing areas.
However, while this high demand for services persists, graduate awareness of patent law as a career remains low. “The patent profession is still a little bit under the radar,” says Walaski. “It’s not got the exposure, and people tend to fall into it by accident or because they had a friend who did it.”
Raising the profile of the profession on campus matters to patent lawyers because most of the sector’s recruits are graduates who are selected for their technical expertise — whether in science, chemistry or engineering — and then acquire legal training and qualifications on the job.
Nor is it easy finding people able to develop the dual capabilities the profession demands, says Liz Jones, managing partner at Dehns, a European patent and trademark firm.
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“We might have someone who stormed it academically but struggles with the legal side,” she says. “Or it might be someone who’s not got stellar academic performance but somehow has that mind required of a patent attorney. It is not necessarily the most academically gifted who will be the future high flyers.”
The nature of the patent law career path also means lateral hires are less common in the profession since people tend to remain with the firm that trained them. “People do move around more than they used to — and that’s a good thing,” says Jones. “But that’s not our main source of talent.”
She says her firm has been well able to attract applicants for entry-level positions — but staff retention has been more of a challenge. A shift to a remote or hybrid workplace has had an impact on the three main factors behind retention: training, staff welfare and building loyalty. All have been harder to achieve in a world where people are in the office for only part of the working week.
“We need to focus on training in the office to make sure they’re getting face-to-face time, and that they’re building those important social connections and loyalty to the firm — that’s all part of retention,” she says.
Goodfellow sees a plus in the shift to remote working, though: an ability to recruit from across the world. He says: “Whether we’d recruit from scratch from Harvard and Stanford as well as British universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, I don’t know. But I’d like to think so.”
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