What Intellectual Property Lawyers Do
Intellectual property law is often misunderstood, even to people who practice law, simply because it is so broad. Generally speaking, intellectual property lawyers help protect the rights of people who design or own creative works, i.e. products of the intellect.
This can include works like art, books, songs, and software, which are covered under copyright laws, things like slogans and logos that differentiate products, which are covered under trademark laws, and also the physical design aspects of items, which are protected by patents.
Patent law can further be broken down into three groups; utility patents, which cover the way something works, design patents, which cover how it looks, and plant patents, which protect custom-engineered or hybrid plants.
IP Attorneys may have a broad focus and work across all areas of intellectual property law, but when they work for larger firms, they usually dedicate their careers to just one of the aforementioned areas, and they may only provide a single service to people within that niche. For example, a person hoping to obtain a patent for a new type of plant may visit an attorney who is dedicated to botanical patent research or filing. In these cases, the attorney will verify that nobody else has filed for the same patent, and will help complete the paperwork in a manner that demonstrates to the patent office that the new plant species is unique and patentable. The same intellectual property attorney may also represent his client in front of a patent clerk or review board.
On the other hand, the same client may later have an issue in which someone tries to sell or market the plant he owns the patent to. The firm will likely provide him with a litigation specialist within intellectual property law to defend and protect his already patented work. Should the client later wish to allow another entity to grow, produce, or sell his plant, the firm will supply him with yet another attorney who specializes in drawing up licensing contracts.
As technology has grown more complex, the need for niche-oriented specialists has expanded exponentially. For example, proving that a song is unique and has been copied or stolen could be relatively easy, but proving the biological makeup of a plant, lines of software, or the functionality of a button has been stolen may require the assistance of someone with a strong background in the related industry.
Who would enjoy a career in Intellectual Property Law?
Intellectual property lawyers are arguably some of the most detailed attorneys in existence, as even the most minor difference or discrepancy can result in a client not having protection, whether because a patent office rejects an applicant, for not being unique enough, or because the attorney was unable to demonstrate how the client’s rights were infringed upon.
The profitability of companies can rely in their ability to protect their name and products, and entire lives can hang in the balance when an individual is basing a business on a new concept. For this reason, people entering into the field must also be very well-versed in their areas of expertise and be able to manage stress well. However, it can also be a rewarding job, particularly when a client is awarded his patent or when justice is served in court.
Who mightn't like the career?
A lot of an intellectual property lawyer’s job involves intense scrutiny of the laws and existing patents, trademarks, and copyrights. For this reason, those who thrive on changing environments or physical activity will not be happy in the career.
Abuse of the patent system, perhaps by obtaining many patents or generic patents for the sake of suing for infringement later, has also given the industry a bad name. Newcomers to law may have to fight against the so-called “patent trolls,” or may be invited to join a practice that participates in such actions, presenting moral dilemmas and/or difficulty in the courtroom, as such entities are known for having deep pockets and immense legal teams. Fighting these types of battles is often like David vs. Goliath, particularly for those who feel personally responsible for every outcome.
Admittance into an accredited university upon completion of entry exams is the first step in entering law. Quality institutions have rigorous requirements and competition for positions is fierce. A law degree is required in order to practice at any level above the rank of intern or summer associate in the US and Canada. In the UK and Australia, offerings such as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) or the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP), respectively, are available, which allow people with virtually any undergraduate degree to move into law. Each jurisdiction has further requirements, including a bar exam and licensure process.
Those who are aware they’d like to enter into a law career should plan early and apply for a summer associate or internship position while still in school, as the experience will help secure a long-term position after graduation.
- Harvard Law School’s “Questions You Should Be Prepared to Answer”
- 10 tips for a strong legal internship interview
Moving into Intellectual Property Law from another career
It can be difficult to transition into law, simply because one must pass legal exams and participate in additional coursework. At the same time, some big firms appreciate diversity and take pride in amassing a staff with unique non-legal backgrounds, as these individuals are better prepared to understand the needs of each sector that is being represented by the firm.
- Scientist (biologist, if working on plant patents)
- Engineer (if working on mechanical-type patents)
Graduate / Associate
Role: Incoming lawyers are referred to as associates. Students who are interning may have the distinction of being called a “summer clerk” or “summer associate,” and those fresh from university will be called “first-year associates,” and so on. Lawyers typically hold the title of associate for somewhere between seven and ten years, depending on the firm. During this time, their job is to support the firm’s partners, generally by handling research and reviewing contracts. It’s worth noting that some firms have an “up or out” policy, meaning that if a lawyer is not on the tenure track and does not become a partner within the allotted time, they are asked to leave the firm.
Role: Generally speaking, the title of senior associate is offered to a lawyer around five years into practice, though each firm will have its own guidelines. During this phase, the senior associate is expected to behave as if he or she is a junior partner. Ownership of projects is expected and the individual should be an expert in the area he or she covers. Tasks of greater importance may be assigned to senior associates by the firm’s partners and senior associates will generally have junior associates they can delegate some of their work to. It’s while working as a senior associate that a lawyer demonstrates to the firm that he or she is an indispensable part of the firm and is already behaving as if a partner.
Role: Associates who have proven themselves and are managing some of their own clients as well as bringing in new clients are typically offered partnerships. The exception to this is firms that have “of counsel” positions, which is a promotion from associate for those not on the partner career track. When a lawyer is offered a partnership role, it’s generally an equity partnership in which the lawyer “buys in” to the practice and then earns a percentage of the profits. As part owner, he also gets a say in the firm’s business decisions. Some firms may offer non-equity partnerships and let their seasoned lawyers take a salary instead of being part owner.
It’s fairly rare for intellectual property lawyers to travel unless they’re part of a large firm, have a good reputation and are attracting clients from a distance, or represent large companies. Travel is possible in some instances, for example, an IP lawyer may work with a global pharmaceutical company and be required to travel to various client locations.
Entry Level: According to data from PayScale, those beginning their careers have salaries of approximately USD $104,000 in the United States, £58,000 in the United Kingdom, CAD$97,000 in Canada, and AU$78,000 in Australia.
Mid-Career: USD$121,077, £70,800, CAD$110,580, AU$113,943.
Experienced: USD$159,040, £74,340, CAD$121,250, AU$145,816.
Naturally, bonuses and profit sharing are a major part of a partner’s income. With additional payments, an experienced attorney can earn more than USD$307,000, £120,000, CAD$156,000, or AU$206,000.
Why Intellectual Property Lawyers move on
Although IP law can be viewed as more stimulating, lucrative and stable, the burnout rate is still somewhat high for those trying to make it up the ladder in a larger law firm, particularly in the first couple of years. The ongoing stress and emotional weight of the position can also cause people to seek less-demanding careers. For further reading, see “Why You Should (and Should Not) Quit the Practice of Law.”