Summary: Patent attorneys are in higher demand in today's technology-driven world, but some firms are still not sure how to hire them.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: When a company hires a law firm to work on a patent-related issue, the company is generally seeking a scientist to do the work. The fact that the person has a law degree is important for issue spotting, but may not be essential to the job. If the law firm's client needs someone with wireless technology experience and a degree in electrical engineering, it is ass-backward for the law firm to really care all that much if the person went to a top 20 law school and was Order of the Coif. They are hiring the attorney for another purpose.
I have seen countless pompous firms spend years trying to find a certain type of patent prosecutor (and turning down work and losing millions of dollars of fees in the process) because they were too hung up on the quality of the attorney's law school. This is ridiculous. Ninety-nine percent of the political science, English and other majors in a law firm could never have passed an advanced science class to begin with. The patent attorney is probably smarter than them anyway, regardless of the law school he or she attended. Just because the attorney was not groomed to attend the best law school does not make his or her skills any less marketable.
Law firms hire people from good law schools because of the law of supply and demand. Also, graduates of good schools are generally likely to be smarter and therefore have the potential to be better attorneys than attorneys from lesser schools. When it comes to patent attorneys, however, the standards simply do not apply.
There are far fewer patent attorneys than regular attorneys. Thus they should automatically be more in demand—regardless of where they went to school. Profitable law firms understand this and hire them. Stuffy law firms apply the wrong rules and often fail to hire these attorneys or underutilize them.
Patent attorneys are extremely intelligent. The ability to get advanced science and engineering degrees is something very few attorneys could do. The ability to get good grades in these disciplines is also something that is extremely difficult to do. Therefore, patent attorneys generally do not get into good law schools. This is not because they are not smart, but because they took hard classes in college and graduate school.
Even if top law schools wanted to let patent attorneys in without top grades, they cannot: They are ranked based on the grades of the people they admit, and if they don't demand top grades their rankings will fall precipitously. They would rather admit an advertising major with a 4.0 from Oklahoma State than a physics major from CalTech with a 3.0 grade point average. The insanity of this should be apparent, but this is how the system works and it is biased against patent attorneys.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: When a patent attorney is being interviewed and hired by a patent-only "guild" law firm, the guild may not even ask for their law school grades. They only care about the attorney's science grades in college and in their advanced degrees. If the attorney is a lateral (even 20 years out of school) the firm will want to see this information and even read some of their patents.
Law firms like to evaluate the grades of attorneys because there are only so many attorneys who were able to graduate at the top of their class from major law schools; this accomplishment shows a strong aptitude for the practice of law. In certain disciplines such as litigation, top performance in law school is extremely important because the ability to synthesize information and manipulate verbal facts is subjective, and the smarter and cleverer the attorney's use of facts and law, the more likely their client is to win. This becomes less important in technical work such as corporate law and real estate law—but is important nevertheless. Grades can also show a level of motivation that is helpful for law firms to see because the more motivated the attorney, the better they are likely to do.
Despite the importance of grades for most legal disciplines, however, this does not apply to patent law. When a patent attorney starts practicing law they are generally going to be doing engineering and scientific-related work that the average attorney does not even understand. The average attorney would not even understand what the patent attorney's college and graduate student courses were about. The average attorney could not qualify to take the patent bar, much less pass it.
While an extremely poor performance in law school can often be the sign of a lack of motivation, there are often numerous reasons for this poor performance that are unique to patent attorneys (second career, working while in law school, etc.). Grades do not necessarily correlate with the sort of performance the law firm can expect from the attorney when they practice with them.
What is more important for a patent attorney working on pharmaceutical patents: Their grade in constitutional law or their grades in chemistry classes? I hope you know the answer. (As an aside, patent attorneys often HATE constitutional law for some reason and do poorly in it).
Questions surrounding the patent attorney's motivation should also not be an issue. Most patent attorneys are plenty motivated: They went to law school and endured all of this despite the fact they often could have earned just as much money (if not more) by staying in the sciences.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: Being older means these patent attorneys have families, are less concerned with material success and getting ahead, and are often more careful with their time. In "guild" patent law firms, the attorneys may all bill under 2,000 hours a year; working more hours would be practically unheard of.
But being a patent attorney is not compatible with working this hard. The work is highly cerebral in nature and requires a high level of focus when a patent attorney is working. Patent attorneys spend their time concentrating and not talking on the phone, gossiping, writing, or reading cases with their feet up on a desk. The work is highly technical and billing even 2,000 hours a year as a patent attorney is likely to leave the attorney mentally exhausted at the end of the day. They may even need weekends to recuperate.
Therefore, age should not be used against patent attorneys because they cannot be expected to work the same hours as most attorneys anyway.
Patent attorneys are also often older because they are on second careers. Their first careers were often as scientists and engineers. This experience gives them further technical grounding that makes them well-suited to working as patent attorneys, relating to clients (who are also likely to be engineers and scientists) and understanding matters from the clients' point of view.
While patent attorneys may be older and not interested in working crazy hours due to this, some attorneys are interested in working crazy hours even when older. It is not fair to apply the same yardstick to patent attorneys that is applied to "normal attorneys" when it comes to the pervasive age discrimination in the legal profession.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: The best law firms know that patent attorneys are scientists and not the same as regular attorneys. They do not expect them to "connect" with every attorney in the firm, or be the sort of person they could have a great time going to a baseball game with. The law firm is hiring a scientist!
While firm culture is important, in the case of hiring a scientist it is more about the quality of work than anything; that is what the law firm should be concerned with. It should be more about "Can they do the work?" and less about "Will they fit in?" Most patent attorneys are not too concerned about whether they fit in anyway! They have not been fitting in with "mainstream" groups since they were young children.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: You cannot apply the same criteria to scientists as you do to "average" attorneys. When the best law firms hire patent attorneys, they know they are likely to come with some baggage and this is just par for the course. In most cases, the punishment that patent attorneys inflict upon one another is not at all deserved and something that law firms should take with a grain of salt. The objective of law firms should be to get the work done by people who can do it, without getting involved in the complicated, impossible-to-understand games that scientists play with one another.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: Unemployment gaps and multiple jobs on the average attorney's resume are something that sets off alarm bells for most law firms evaluating attorneys. Patent attorneys, however, are not like normal attorneys—nor is the work that they do, or their ambitions for the practice of law. Law firms can succeed by being more open-minded about how they hire patent attorneys and realizing that if they have the work, they can create a good environment, be more welcome and convince patent attorneys to stay.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: Law firms simply cannot expect to evaluate patent attorneys by the same standards they do normal attorneys. The fact that a "scientist" gets experience working inside of a company is a far different thing than an average attorney who goes inside a company to escape the pressures of a law firm, or, alternatively, get experience that is less sophisticated inside of a company. The experience of most attorneys in-house is generally less demanding and sophisticated compared to a law firm. In contrast, the experience of most in-house patent attorneys is often even more demanding and sophisticated than in a law firm. The reasons for law firms being prejudicial against attorneys who go in-house do not apply to patent attorneys who go in-house.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: The fact that a patent attorney has their own practice does not mean they would not be a good fit for a law firm. They are scientists stuck in a world of humans, and relationships are often not their strong suit. Law firms need to realize that they can take care of these attorneys. The fact that the attorney may have a solo practice does not mean the same thing for them as it does most attorneys.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: Patent attorneys need to be accommodated more than normal attorneys. The things that matter to a scientist are different than what matters to most attorneys. Law firms need to understand the motivations of their patent attorneys; doing so will help them recruit and retain these attorneys.
Because law firms regularly misunderstand the particular needs of patent attorneys, it should be no surprise that patent attorneys move firms quite often. Smart law firms are able to integrate these attorneys by understanding their needs.
How Good Law Firms Use These Differences Related to Patent Attorneys to Succeed: Law firms that interview and hire patent attorneys need to understand that scientists value different things than law firms. Patent attorneys are motivated differently.
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