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The Oxbridge Halo Effect: Is the IP industry biased when it comes to university education?

In order to qualify and succeed as a patent attorney you need to possess a certain level of academic ability and, depending on the technical specialism, many entry level applicants will have completed both an undergraduate degree and a PhD/MSc.  A perception exists that the vast majority of professionals working in the industry have graduated from an Oxbridge university and that firms limit their search to a select number of universities when recruiting graduate positions.  If the perception is the reality it could be due to any number of reasons. The lack of graduate awareness of careers in Intellectual Property for example, where  there are only a few universities promoting such routes and even fewer firms making a conscious effort to attend careers fairs and offer graduate open days. Nonetheless, we thought it would be informative to take a closer look at the origins of our industry’s demographics to ascertain if there is indeed a disproportionate overrepresentation of certain universities within the profession.

In order to do this we researched every firm listed on the CIPA website on the day our article preparation commenced and included all patent attorneys (the study does not include trade mark attorneys) ranging from entry level up to Senior Associate.  Job movements of attorneys between firms in the intervening period may impact the figures to a small degree but not to any significant amount. The breakdown for all firms studied is as follows where the first column is a percentage of patent attorneys that attended an Oxbridge university and the second column is the number of firms in that percentage banding.

All firms: Percentage of Oxbridge Graduates

Percentage (%)

Number of Firms

0 – 20

27

21 – 40

16

41 – 60

9

61 – 80

6

 

The figures above show that of the total firms researched (58) over half (53%) have at least 20% of their patent attorneys with an Oxbridge background and over a quarter (26%) had at least 40% of their patent attorneys with an Oxbridge background. We are certainly not arguing that attending the universities of Oxford or Cambridge is a bad thing by any means but an overwhelmingly disproportionate representation could have a negative impact on work place diversity at the very least.  It could also mean that many excellent graduates from other leading universities are simply being overlooked by a not insignificant amount of the profession.  Even if a firm were only to recruit from the Russell Group universities (which we would advocate against too) then the percentage of fee earners from Oxbridge should be in the region of 8% (2 universities out of a total of 24).  There certainly shouldn’t be a majority of firms with over 20% of their workforce from just two universities.

We also decided to test the perception that the older a firm is, the more of an Oxbridge bias it might have.  Founding dates of firms range anywhere from the late 1700s to the early Millennium, although a significant proportion were established in the mid to late 1800s. The average percentage of Oxbridge staff members at a firm established from c.1850 to 1910 is 27%, with the lowest at 0% and the highest at 78%. There is a spread of Oxbridge graduates amongst these firms between the highest and lowest percentages (albeit a higher concentration towards the lower end), as illustrated in the table below:

Firms founded 1850 – c.1910: Percentage of Oxbridge Graduates

Percentage (%)

Number of Firms

0 – 20

9

21 – 40

6

41 – 60

4

61 – 80

2

 

So 57% of firms that were founded in the late 19th century have 20% or more patent attorneys from an Oxbridge background.  This is higher than the average but not significantly so, which means that it is likely a problem for the profession as a whole, not simply firms that have existed for a long time.

For larger firms the demographics are quite alarming.  For firms with a total staff number of 100 or more 36% of their patent attorneys attended Oxbridge.  Even as a percentage of total staff numbers rather than patent attorneys alone the average is 34%, with the highest rate at a startlingly high 83%.

Some technical specialisms have higher Oxbridge representation than others. For example 43% of patent attorneys with a background in chemistry, life sciences or similar entered the profession from an Oxbridge university, compared to 25% of those in physics, electronics, engineering or similar.  This may be because of the higher market demand for candidates with the latter backgrounds - firms have had to be more flexible in their recruitment strategies either consciously or unconsciously. Or perhaps there is a circle of patterns, as there are more Oxbridge patent attorneys within life sciences they recruit people like them who in turn recruit people like them.  If the same were happening in engineering/electronics then the lower representation could be reinforced by repeated ‘recruit like me’ hiring philosophies too.     

There are regional differences, of all of the London based firms, including those with offices elsewhere, an average of 32% of patent attorneys attended Oxford or Cambridge.  For firms solely based in the regions, 22% of their attorneys have an Oxbridge background (which is still a great deal higher than it should be as a percentage of the Russell Group, let alone as a percentage of the total of universities in the UK).

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are not the only universities to be over represented in our research.   Imperial College, London and University College, London appear frequently also. 

Whilst we might imply conclusions in our analysis above our intention is not to say whether hiring practices are right or wrong but to present our findings for people with an interest in the profession to debate.  However, we do believe that it is, at the very least, conceivable that the profession is missing out on some of the very best graduates to other industries. At worst this could be because applications are being overlooked purely down to bias or, even on a best case scenario, some of our leading universities are not being sufficiently targeted for their leading graduates.

****Article Update****

Since publishing the article we were asked via Twitter to look at how the statistics played out with more recent entrants into the profession. We looked at all attorneys currently working who have not yet qualified (so with job titles such as 'Assistant', 'Trainee Patent Attorney' and so on). With a small margin of error (there were a couple of entries that may or may not have been qualified), the figure for patent attorneys not yet qualified was 28%. That is 28% of all those currently training to be a patent attorney attended Oxford or Cambridge University. It is a higher figure than we at Fellows and Associates expected given recent intiatives taken to address this.

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