Over the last week the news has been all over the Internet in blog after blog after blog. According to NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals, the employment rate for 2011 law school graduates is the lowest in 18 years. See Law School Grads Face Worst Job Market Yet. As if that news wasn’t bad enough, the NALP announcement went on to explain that less than 66% of law school graduates from the Class of 2011 are employed in jobs that require bar membership. That means that over 0ne-third of law school graduates from the Class of 2011 are either back in school, working jobs that did not require them to go to law school in the first place, or they are simply unemployed.
“For members of the Class of 2011, caught as they were in the worst of the recession… the entry-level job market can only be described as brutal,” said James Leipold, NALP Executive Director. “When this class took their LSATs and applied for law school there were no signs that the legal economic boom was showing any signs of slowing, and yet by the time they graduated they faced what was arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years.”
As depressing as the NALP finds are relative to the Class of 2011, and they are deeply disturbing, it is important to keep in mind that there is not a single, unified legal job market in the United States. Today the practice of law is highly specialized and what may be true of the job market for one particular expertise may not be true of another area of specialty. One particular niche area that is bucking the trend of the overall legal job market is the patent arena, where those who hold science and engineering degrees must take the patent bar examination in order to become either a patent attorney or patent agent.
Mark Dighton, the Director of the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and also Director of PLI’s Law School Relations, sees reasons to be optimistic about the patent job market moving forward. “The patent law job market didn’t see quite the downturn the general legal market did, but we’ve been through some lean years, no doubt,” Dighton said. “We’re seeing anecdotal signs of renewed vitality in hiring in the patent field.”
But what objective evidence is there of an increased patent job market for law students and recent law school graduates? The Loyola Patent Law Interview Program (PLIP) a two-day interview program held in Chicago each summer that brings together patent law employers and law students from across the country to interview for summer associate positions and post-graduate employment. The Loyola Patent Law Interview Program is a big, national job fair for law students who want to be patent lawyers and is always our bellwether indicator of the job market.”
Alissa J. Holterman is the Assistant Director of Career Services at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, has been the primary administrator of for the last 5 years. Holterman says there are objective signs of improvement in the patent job market for new and recent law school graduates, and real reason for optimism. “This year there will be 123 employers are coming to PLIP, and they’ve asked for a total of 232 day-long interview schedules. That’s almost a 20% increase in employers since last year, and more than a 20% increase in interviews, ” says Holterman. “That’s more employers and interviews than any year since 2008.”
Is the patent job market back in a big way? It may be a little early to tell for sure, but the signs are there and 20% improvement for the PLIP is indeed encouraging news. But PLI is also seeing increased interest in its patent bar review course. “We are seeing greater interest in the patent bar exam from both law students and firms,” Dighton says. Therefore, at the very least there seems to be renewed optimism in the patent community that things are turning around. Such optimism is nearly always a necessary precursor to tangible changes in hiring. At the very least law students who are patent bar eligible need to seriously consider taking the patent bar examination and getting their resumes in order. Doing all those things that Career Services tells you to do to be noticed, network and learn the industry are vital if you want to get in on the bottom floor of what appears to be an upward trend in hiring.
“Employers will likely still be picky,” Dighton explains. “They’ll want it all, because they can afford to ask for it all. One of the things that will make a difference to many employers is having passed the Patent Bar Exam. A lot of what they’re looking at — your undergrad degree, your GPA, your law school — you have little or no control over now. The Patent Bar is maybe the one thing you can do to distinguish yourself at this point.”
I also recommend that law students take the patent bar exam sooner rather than later during their law school careers. First, with the recent changes to patent law brought about by the America Invents Act, the exam is only going to get more difficult in the months ahead. The next wave of new rules brought about by the AIA will take effect on September 16, 2012. The last new material to be tested was tested only 8 days after it became effective! I anticipate that they will start to be tested on the Patent Bar Exam shortly thereafter.
The final wave of AIA implementation will not become effective until March 16, 2013, but on that date U.S. patent law changes from first to invent to first to file. This is a dramatic shift in the law and will be accompanied by more new USPTO rules. I anticipate these new changes, which are monumental, will be tested on the Patent Bar Exam starting in late March 2013 or early April 2013. When this change happens attorneys and would-be attorneys will need to know both first to invent regimes that will apply to patent applications filed on or before March 15, 2013, and the new first to file rules that will apply to patent applications filed on or after March 16, 2013. The test will get harder because of a vast increase in the amount of information that will be necessary to know. Therefore, taking the Patent Bar Exam sooner rather than later is a wise choice. It should enhance your job prospects and the Exam will be easier.
In addition to passing the Patent Bar, it is critical to understand that what a patent attorney or patent law firm wants in a new hire is some specific technical expertise. Unlike in virtually any other field of law, those who are patent bar qualified can meaningfully assist a patent attorney day one. With this in mind you must determining what it is that is unique about yourself. What technical expertise do you bring to the table? For example, I am an electrical engineer who focused my undergraduate education on computers. I am constantly on the Internet, constantly working with code and have self-taught myself all kinds of things about search engines, search engine optimization, e-commerce and more. So my education and personal interest in software and the Internet has created a niche for me in the patent world.
Once you figure out what you bring to the table now you have to figure out where to send your cover letter and resume. A shotgun approach will be a complete waste time and money. You could have a degree in Chemistry or Biology from the most prestigious University in the world, followed by a Ph.D. at an equally exclusive school, followed by a law degree from Harvard or Yale and my firm — Zies, Widerman & Malek — would never be interested in hiring you. We do not have attorneys that know enough about chemistry or biology to understand the cutting edge, sophisticated inventions that excite start-ups and investors and result in patent work. Simply stated, we just cannot use your skills. But if you are an electrical engineer or computer engineer we typically are VERY interested, and we have been expanding and plan to do further expansion over the next 12 to 18 months.
This means you must identify attorneys and firms that work in the technical fields where you have something unique to contribute. I always tell those searching for jobs that they should start with a patent search. Search for technologies that you know something about and see what attorneys or firms are listed on those patents. Then you start networking!
The moral of the story is this: The patent job market is not nearly as bad as the overall, generic job market for new hires. In fact, the patent job market is showing signs of life even for recent law school graduates and current law students. Now is not the time to let the popular press depress you into crawling under a rock. Get your matters in order, perfect your resume and cover letter, engage in prudent networking and make yourself as attractive to those employers who need your technical expertise as possible. Because the market is not as hot as it once was you want to be on the front end of this wave, not the back end.
Happy job hunting!