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Should patent and trade mark firms be easier going about academic background? 

A level results in the UK were published today and as I was driving to work listening to anecdotes from students who have achieved or notFellows and Associates A-Level Results achieved what they wanted it made me think about the incredible importance employers in general, and the IP profession in particular, put on these two years of a person’s life.  I wonder if it’s more than a little closed minded?  Could someone with bad A level results make a good (or great) patent attorney? 

I do of course understand that to be an effective patent attorney you need to understand the science of the area you are working in to a very high level.  However, if someone failed at A level, scraped into university then achieved a great result at a lowlier ranked university should they be dismissed?  One could argue that reacting to and correcting this (possibly self-made) adversity demonstrates someone who has learnt from their mistakes and proven themselves to have a high level of resolve.  Are three A* grades from a private school really better than three B grades from an underperforming inner-city school?  If your policy is only to recruit people with amazing A level results who went to amazing universities you are very likely to limit the potential diversity of your workforce.  And more to the point, you are potentially dismissing an excellent resource that could have abilities that you didn’t know you needed.  I’m certainly not arguing for positive discrimination but I am arguing for selecting the best candidate as they are now, not as they were when they took their A levels.

It can be worse than that.  I have known some patent attorney firms ask for GCSE results of attorneys applying for associate (i.e. qualified) patent attorney positions.  How is that even relevant?  If someone is already doing the job well now how does the fact they got a ‘C’ in religious studies over ten years ago make a difference?

Now I do sympathise with HR departments when dealing with a high volume of applicants for new trainee roles.  Academic results can be an easy way of immediately ruling people out and shrinking the list.  However, there are plenty of other ways that are just as or nearly as efficient.  For example, the last time we recruited at broadly speaking ‘graduate’ level we had a high volume of applications where candidates had not taken reasonable care over spelling or grammar on their CV or cover letter, had obviously no understanding of the job they were applying for, or who had an irrelevant degree (someone with a marketing degree applying for a job that required a physics background).  I would think if you eliminated applicants by the quality of their application in respect to how it is put together then you would be able to rule out a huge volume and then well-crafted applications from candidates with less impressive academic results might achieve an interview where they otherwise wouldn’t.  I have had terribly crafted applications from candidates with excellent academic results as well and perhaps this lack of care should be a reason to reject them, if not, what’s the point of an application at all? – Candidates could just send through their academic transcripts and their name.

Academic open-mindedness can be a more problematic when looking at degree results (assuming the candidate hasn’t gone on to do a PhD), as technical understanding is of course very important.  A 2:2 or worse grade could demonstrate a lack of understanding in a way that I don’t think A levels (or GCSEs) do.  But even there, there can be exceptions and ruling people out can limit possibilities and diversity.  And again, I think degree result really should be irrelevant when considering qualified attorneys for new roles, if they have demonstrated they can do the job then what they were doing at university several years ago should no longer be important.

There are other issues as well.  To make an unfair and sweeping generalisation one might say that graduates from a very select set of universities with, as a consequence, an effective but narrow network don’t help grow business development activities.  This is largely because these activities are already being done by the people already in the job with exactly the same network and life experiences broadly speaking.  A wider pool of attorneys means that you have more people in a firm that can empathise with your clients, which are likely to be from a much more varied background than simply the same narrow set of universities.  As building business is, and always will be, based on the quality of human relationships then having different types of humans working for your organisation can only be of benefit. 

Pete Fellows is the Managing Director of Fellows and Associates and is currently very happy that his free extended warranty on his home entertainment system is not out of date as it went kaput earlier in the week.  It's the small victories that count.

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