An article in my SSRN feed caught my eye this week: Where Have All the Patent Lawyers Gone? Long Time Passing... by Kenneth L. Port, Lucas Hjelle, and Molly Rose Litman (William Mitchell; Schwegman, Lundberg and Woessner; William Mitchell student).
The paper makes a pretty bold assertion - that the number of new patent lawyers is going to drop by 50% in the next three years. This is not necessarily surprising - after all, new law student enrollments are dropping. But not by 50%. Further, their prediction is not just conjecture or fancy econometrics - they look at the number of LSAT takers qualified to take the patent bar, and find that only 600 in the whole country were so qualified this year. Given that about 80% of qualified law students actually enter the patent bar, the numbers are looking to be south of 500 in 2018. By comparison, the number hovered between 800 and 1200 between 2003 and 2014. So that's that. Then why is this a curious case?
There are two curiosities. Both are discussed in the paper, with the first more at length than the second. First, given growth in women in science and engineering, we should have been weeing more women patent lawyers and applicants. But, in fact, the paper finds that the percentage of men has been roughly stable. This means that, for whatever reason, women have not been as drawn to patent prosecution (you need not have a special degree to be a patent litigator, though it makes it harder to get that first job). It is unclear why a higher percentage of qualified women than men are turning away law school as an option.
This is tied to the second curiosity: patent law is one area where employment prospects are good* and are expected to remain so. The draft Article shows the growing number of patents, and despite patent reform that has reduced the value of patenting some, the number of applications continue to grow and have almost always been tied to growth in population as much as anything else.
In other words, there are jobs for patent lawyers, and we should expect growth or at least a less rapid decline in patent bar eligible students. I wish we had more students, because every year we have requests from employers that we can't fill. Of course, there's more competition for engineers now, too, so it's possible that young science and engineering grads can earn more on the open market. I don't know the answer to that.This site shows average starting engineering salaries at about $100k. Starting salaries for patent prosecutors is $75K to $95K with upper ranges in the $150K or more area for some, and more for prosecutor/litigator combos (which is most big firms). The long term upside may be much higher for lawyers, especially because that first job is easier to get.
Some critics will surely say that it's the crushing debt that holds people back, but if it is, then that's perception over reality. My experience is that math, science, and engineering folks do better on the LSAT, which means better scholarships somewhere, and ranking means just a little bit less if your very specialized career field is in demand - remember, we are talking about 500 students nationwide.
This leads us back to the curious case of women engineers. Given the many stories I read about how women engineers are mistreated in the workplace, I would think that an alternative career with time flexibility that is also potentially lucrative (though not without its own gender biases and glass ceilings) would be something to consider. Or at least to consider in equal proportions to undergraduate populations.
*I'll add a caveat here that it's harder to get a patent job in bio these days without a PhD, though most of my bio patent students were also employed by nine months after graduation.