Making progress in the legal profession

In some ways, barristers have it easy. It may not seem like it, while you are slogging through the ranks. But there is a clear career path, if you are talented and hardworking, and want to follow it. You build up a practice. After 15 to 20 years, you become a Queen’s Counsel. After a few more years, you combine this with being a deputy High Court judge. In the IP field, you might also become a judge in one of the specialist tribunals, such as the Copyright Tribunal. Perhaps you take on the role of judge in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court, as long as it is clearly understood by all concerned that this is not the end of your ambitions.

Eventually, if you want it, you become a judge in the High Court, and get the knighthood or damehood that goes with this role. If you still have energy and aptitude, you do this for a few years and demonstrate your growth in the role, before being promoted the Court of Appeal. At 70 you are forced to retire. What do you do next? Perhaps you become a professor of law, and help train the next generations of IP lawyers and judges.

In other words, there is a career path that will enable you to ‘grow’ professionally, but also provide variety and change every few years. For solicitors and patent attorneys, there is not the same sequence of well-established roles. For many, being made up to partner is an important stepping-stone. Perhaps at this point you settle into a long-term role with your firm, which ends only with your retirement. Other IP lawyers prefer to move every few years to a new firm, or to take the leap into industry. In some firms you may be forced to retire at 60, and have to find pastures new. At this point, some practitioners join a US law firm, where there appears to be less formal ageism. Others change career mid-stream. One noble soul, whom IP Draughts has known for over 30 years, recently became a science teacher in his 50s.

Several of the young lawyers that IP Draughts has interviewed for jobs over the years have commented on being content as long as they keep making progress. IP Draughts is not immune from this desire. He mentioned the point to David Greene last week. David has just been elected as Deputy Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales (the national bar association for English solicitors), which means that in two years’ time he is very likely to become President. When IP Draughts started in practice, Presidents were typically awarded knighthoods, but this practice was abandoned in 1990, after the Law Society membership elected an ‘unclubbable’ radical to be President.

In response to IP Draughts’ expressed wish to find another role, David replied “we’re all the same”. In other words, we all want to keep making progress, whatever level we have reached. What does a Law Society President do after his term of office has concluded, if he doesn’t want to retire?

At a less exalted level, IP Draughts has to retire as Chair (and as a member) of the IP Law Committee of the Law Society this Summer. He has been a member since 2006. He would like to find another part-time position to fill the gap. He has other roles (eg he is co-chair of a PraxisAuril working group that will be seeking to develop a standard investment agreement for university spin-out companies) but none of the same intensity and seniority as the IP Law Committee.

He has applied, and been interviewed, for a couple of chairing roles with public bodies. Although unsuccessful, the process has scraped some of the rust from IP Draughts’ interview technique.

If you are in a position to recommend a part-used IP lawyer in his late 50s for a senior role, please would you do so? Skills that the candidate believes he has include:

  • legal and commercial skills and experience
  • planning, designing, creative thinking, long-term thinking
  • preparing, listening, explaining, moderating, mediating
  • independent-minded, but very willing to work as part of a team for a common purpose
  • chairing, organising and leading groups of talented, strong-minded professionals, building up trust
  • clear, well-structured, persuasive writing (eg of reports)

One role that IP Draughts would be interested in is the Law Commissioner for commercial law. But there isn’t currently a vacancy, and anyway the role is full-time, which wouldn’t suit him for the next few years as he wants to continue running Anderson Law. And no doubt there will be plenty of talented candidates when a vacancy does arise.

The ‘tap on the shoulder’ or ‘quiet word in your ear’ technique has been discredited, sometimes wrongly in IP Draughts’ view, as a method of recruitment. Everyone has to go through an application and interview process. But even so, a favourable word might just help…




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