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Does the time taken to qualify as a patent or trade mark attorney impact your earning potential?

If an attorney passes their exams first time and consequently progresses quicker in their career than someone who perhaps failed on their initial attempt, the assumption would be that they would be rewarded accordingly for their advanced level and its corresponding increased responsibilities. With the recent publication of our eighth annual salary survey we decided to investigate this further and, interestingly, we found that the reality is not as straight forward as one may think. Most of the profession qualified as patent attorneys within 3 or 4 years, with the majority of trade mark attorneys sitting at both ends of the spectrum of taking ‘less than 3 years’ and ‘5 years’. However, there is no indication that salaries decrease or increase with the amount of time taken to qualify, with the only clear outliers occurring at 4 and 6+ years in chemistry/pharmaceuticals and 5 years in engineering. 

Historically salary increases have usually been given when attorneys reach a career milestone, such as UK or European qualification. This alone wouldn’t explain a corresponding higher salary as firm policy would dictate the same increase regardless of whether the time taken was 3, 4 or 5 years, although the distinction could occur where a qualified attorney is then expected to take on additional responsibilities as a result of their qualification. They would then gain more experience, consequently progressing further and increasing the gap between themselves and their slower counterparts.

The lack of a clear course could reflect a shift in the traditional hierarchical model where these additional responsibilities are now being entrusted to attorneys before they actually qualify. Firms are placing emphasis on areas of the business that do not necessarily require qualification, such as business development and client management, and are rewarding attorneys that excel in these over their ability to pass exams. Employees that are confident in forward facing roles are near equal assets to those who are qualified as they add value to the business through other avenues such as bringing on new clients and increasing the visibility and presence of the firm. The control has also been handed in part to the employee at some firms, allowing them to dictate when they feel comfortable to take their exams and not feeling pressured to complete them within a set time frame. Firms with this ethos will need to recognise development, and the corresponding salary increases, in other areas.

Pressure to qualify is taken from attorneys to some extent in firms where there is a support structure and facilities for work to be more closely supervised by Partners for a longer period. If the firm is smaller or the practice is less busy then Partners may have the time to hand hold, so to speak, for a little longer than those where the volume of work dictates otherwise. A firm could also prefer this way of working if they find it difficult to delegate work from certain important or long-established clients to more junior members of the team.

The technical area of those who completed the survey also plays a factor in the salary they receive. Attorneys with a background in electronics or engineering have been in demand for some time and as a consequence firms began offering a premium as a way of securing them ahead of the competition. These inflated salaries were concentrated at around the part to newly qualified area, meaning these attorneys may have taken longer to qualify than those with a background in chemistry, biotechnology etc. but will still have been earning more as a consequence of their value in the profession. That being said the data interestingly shows that those working in chemistry/pharmaceuticals consistently received a higher salary than the other disciplines.

Another trend which is becoming more common as a consequence of the demand for electronics and engineering attorneys is recruiting from overseas. These hires can be problematic as they do not fit the salary structure of most firms, however where a firm has the flexibility to offer a higher salary without upsetting the internal politics then this can result in an attorney who is qualified elsewhere but still has to qualify locally earning more than those with UK qualifications.  

Of course, there does need to be a cut-off point where the abilities of the attorney need to be questioned if they are taking much longer than the average to pass their exams, however for the purpose of this article it is assumed that those who participated in the salary survey were (somewhat) capable in their roles.

If you would like to read the survey in full then click here.

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