In this area, the demand for IP attorneys -- particularly in patent and software licensing -- clearly outpaces supply.
Click here to see the huge number of patent attorney jobs BCG Attorney Search is currently recruiting for.
If you have the appropriate background and want to explore your options, here are some general guidelines for the job search and interview process, along with some real-life experiences of IP candidates.
If you are an attorney contemplating a job change, first identify why you are considering other opportunities. Partnership potential, money, responsibility, management or personality issues, location – putting your finger on the issues most important to your career increases your chance of finding an appropriate opportunity.
Once you have decided to search for another job, it is crucial to identify what is important to you in a new position, i.e., your "highest value needs." This, too, will narrow down the scope of potential opportunities to those best-suited for you.
A good recruiter with a wide network of contacts can play an important role in this process. The recruiter should help you make an informed decision by providing you with as much information as possible about various positions, and should be an advocate on your behalf, guiding you through the process, preparing you for interviews, providing insight and guidance in choosing between opportunities, and assisting in any negotiations relating to the offer package.
1. GET THE ANSWERS
These are a few of the considerations faced by job-changers in this field:
- Will you be better served by a full-service general practice or a boutique firm focused exclusively on IP law?
- If you have an advanced degree or significant pre-law school work experience, is the firm willing to compensate you for that?
What proportion of the firm's practice is foreign, as opposed to domestic work?
- Does a full-service firm have an understanding of some of the difficulties prosecution attorneys have with respect to meeting billable-hour requirements?
- Does the firm offer exposure to IP litigation?
- Is it a healthy, collegial firm?
- What is your long-term growth opportunity at the firm?
- What are the firm's long-term growth plans?
- After interviewing, which firm and people did you enjoy the most on a personal level?
The market has experienced significant consolidation recently, with smaller to midsize boutique firms -- including IP firms -- merging into larger, full-service firms. Assuming that the consolidation trend continues (and I see no reason why it will not), there are a number of important benefits to a full-service practice, including the ability to cross-market clients, multidisciplinary practice groups, counter-cyclical practice areas to compensate during leaner times, and generally having a minimum level of size and experience to handle virtually any client matter.
On the other hand, boutiques generally offer better partnership potential, a more collegial, intimate environment, greater responsibility, and, in the case of IP boutiques, a better understanding of issues particularly affecting IP attorneys.
2. GET THE INTERVIEWS
Once you have identified appropriate opportunities, the next step is to obtain as many interviews as possible. It is only by learning more about a practice and meeting the people that one can be confident about making the right choice.
Keep in mind that you are marketing yourself. Be prepared to answer a few basic questions, such as: Why you are considering leaving your job? What are you looking for? and What is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?
Always avoid the topic of money and hours during the initial screening interview. These are issues that will come up later in the interview process and can be answered by a recruiter. At the first interview, simply emphasize your experience and strengths while being personable, polished, and enthusiastic about the opportunity. Assuming there is a reasonably good fit, the goal in the interview process should always be to get the offer and then decide if it is appropriate for you.
See Top 23 Law Firm Interview Tips: How to Excel in Law Firm Interviews.
I recently worked with a patent attorney from an IP boutique who was considering other opportunities. She was interested in getting more exposure to patent litigation, as well as continuing her prosecution practice. She received various offers from larger, full-service law firms that would provide her more litigation opportunities. In addition, a couple of firms offered to credit her one J.D. class year in recognition of her Ph.D. and significant industry experience. Her Ph.D. was in biochemistry, and her prior career was as a staff fellow doing medical research.
After thoroughly exploring the market, this patent attorney had a number of options to consider:
- staying at her firm,
- moving to a boutique or full-service practice,
- focusing on prosecution or litigation,
- or having a mix of the two.
Her research put this attorney in a great position to weigh her current job against what the market was willing to offer.
Getting credit for an advanced degree or previous experience is not unusual. For example, a California firm with a D.C. branch office will credit IP attorneys class years toward compensation and partnership for working with the Patent and Trademark Office, advanced degrees, and significant industry experience. In addition, the firm has lower billable-hour expectations for their IP attorneys. For stellar candidates, other firms will give an upfront signing bonus, rather than crediting class years, to stay competitive.
Another recent example of a job search conducted by our office involved a junior patent attorney working at a respected IP boutique. This young attorney had an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, one of the more highly sought-after degrees. In addition, he had some prior industry experience as a network designer. His reason for considering the market was that his IP practice was narrowly focused on large litigation matters, and he was interested in getting significantly more prosecution experience. He was brought in by a number of firms to interview and soon had several offers. Among the firms courting him was a prominent full-service D.C.-based firm, arguably one of the best firms on the East Coast for technology-related practices. During the search process, the candidate learned that his prior experience before law school was not enough to justify a bump. However, every offer would allow him the opportunity to do what he really wanted, which was patent prosecution.
A problem that can be a deal-breaker is conflict of interest. For example, this same attorney was pursued by another prominent patent practice. However, his current firm happened to be involved in litigation with the prospective employer. It turned out to be a conflict of interest that could not be resolved, precluding either side from considering the other. Although most conflicts can be resolved, in this instance it took a potentially good opportunity off the table for the patent attorney.
Opportunities abound for IP attorneys, but do not make a lateral move lightly. Once you decide to explore the market, don't try to shortcut the process. The job search is very personal: What is good for one person may not be good for another. You will know what is right for you only after engaging in a thorough job search.
Interested in learning more?
- Read the Guide to Intellectual Property Law
- Intellectual Property Law Practice Areas Explained: The Differences Between Patent Law, Trademark Law, Copyright Law, Trade Secret Law and Licensing Law Explained