28 May 2019

Patent Attorney Survey Part 1: Respondent Demographics

Analysis As many readers will already be aware, between mid-March and April I conducted a survey with the objective of gaining some insights into how members of the trans-Tasman IP profession (primarily patent attorneys) are faring in the face of a challenging market and substantial structural changes within the profession.  Over the coming weeks I will be publishing a number of article reporting on the results of the survey.  This is no small task, in view of the number and diversity of responses received.  While some of the observations resulting from the survey will be uncontroversial, there are others that I expect (and, indeed, hope) may lead to further conversations about the impact of change on the profession.

This first article, however, should be relatively free of controversy.  It is primarily concerned with an analysis of the overall demographics of respondents to the survey, by comparison with the profession as whole.  What these results indicate is that there is a sound basis for belief that responses to the survey are broadly representative of the wider profession.

In the end, I received 247 responses to the survey.  Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority – over 90% – of these were from patent attorneys, and trainees, working in private practice in Australia and New Zealand.  (I am using the term ‘private practice’ in its conventional sense here, i.e. to mean attorneys providing services in the role of external advisors to clients, regardless of whether they are doing so as sole practitioners, members of privately-held practices, or members of publicly-listed groups.)  Many of the survey questions were not generally applicable to patent attorneys working other contexts (e.g. in-house), or to trade mark attorneys or lawyers.  I received a few complaints from people who felt excluded as a result, and I do appreciate that those people genuinely felt that they were being denied an opportunity to express their views.  However, this survey was intentionally focussed on those who are are most directly affected by current market conditions and the ongoing structural changes in the profession.

Response Rate

Based on the current content of the Register maintained by the Trans-Tasman IP Attorneys Board (which I monitor on a monthly basis), there are 799 registered patent attorneys working in private practice in Australia and New Zealand. The graphic below shows where they work, broken down into the three listed groups (IPH Limited, Xenith IP Group Limited, and QANTM IP Limited), the five largest (by employee numbers) privately-held firms, and everybody else.
Patent attorney employment at a glance Overall, therefore, more than 25% of the target audience responded to the survey.  The opinion pollsters that failed to predict the outcome of the recent Australian Federal election (which mostly operate with sample sizes of under 0.02%, albeit with far stricter controls than my survey) can only dream of such high response rates!  However, considering that respondents were uncontrolled and self-selecting, the question does remain as to whether this was a representative quarter of the profession.

Firm Structure

Based on the number shown in the graphic above, 69% of trans-Tasman patent attorneys in private practice work in privately-held businesses or firms, i.e. as employees or equity owners of firms or partnerships, or as sole practitioners, while 31% work for firms within listed groups. 

Based on responses to the relevant question, 61% of survey respondents work within privately-held businesses, and 39% within firms in listed groups, as illustrated by the following pie chart
Firm ownership Broadly speaking, then, the survey responses are fairly representative of both of these segments of the profession, with employees of listed-group firms being slightly over-represented.  Nonetheless, there is a significant number of responses from each segment, and neither one is substantially under-represented in the survey.

Firm Size

Survey respondents were asked to report the total number of registered attorneys and IP lawyers (i.e. qualified IP professionals) at the firms where they work, as an indication of firm size.  Responses to this question are summarised in the pie chart below.
Firm size - respondents It is not straightforward to obtain an equivalent breakdown for the profession as a whole, because there is no readily accessible register of IP lawyers from which numbers and employers can be extracted.  However, an estimate can be obtained based on the number of registered patent and trade marks attorneys at each firm that employs one or more registered patent attorneys, particularly since many of the IP lawyers who work in these firms are registered as trade marks attorneys.  The profession-wide numbers, based on the 799 registered patent attorneys working in private practice, are summarised in the following pie chart.
Firm size - profession Based upon this data, it appears that sole practitioners are somewhat under-represented in the survey, while attorneys working in large firms are slightly over-represented.  This does not surprise me greatly.  I am aware that this blog does not reach as many sole practitioners as larger-firm attorneys, and attribute this primarily to word-of-mouth, and the greater propensity for colleagues within larger firms to share information with one another.

Overall, however, attorneys from all sizes of firms are represented in the survey results, with mid-sized firms in particular being reflected generally in proportion to the profession as a whole.

Experience and Seniority

Survey respondents were asked to identify their position within their firm.  Six fixed options were provided, ranging from owner or equity partner down to trainee or pre-qualification professional.  A ‘write-in’ option was also provided, for those who did not identify sufficiently with any of the six fixed categories.  What I was mainly trying to get at with this question was a measure of experience and seniority of each respondent.  It is difficult to set hard-and-fast rules for this, since people obviously develop skills and secure promotions at different rates, depending on their particular circumstances.  A number of respondents used the write-in option to clarify that they had, for example, achieved a particular level more or less rapidly than suggested in the fixed categories.  In almost all of these cases, I was able to assign these respondents sensibly to one of the fixed categories, generally being guided more by seniority than years of experience.

The resulting distribution is summarised in the pie chart below.
Experience and seniority While I do not have statistics on seniority or experience for the profession as a whole, it is apparent that patent professionals across all levels are well-represented in the survey.

Technical Expertise

Respondents were asked to nominate their fields of technical expertise, across six categories.  It was possible to select more than one field, because of course many patent attorneys practice across multiple technology areas.  Summing the number of responses across all fields thus results in a larger number than the total number of respondents, by a factor of 1.8.  Another way of looking at this is that a trans-Tasman patent attorney, on average, practices across 1.8 fields of technology.  The responses are summarised in the following chart.
Technical expertise It is notable that any client requiring expertise in mechanical or physical technologies, which of course encompass most ‘simple’ tangible products and devices, has a wide choice of attorneys, with nearly half of all respondents claiming expertise in these areas.  Indeed, of those respondents who claimed mechanical expertise, 55% nominated at least one additional field of expertise.

The most common paired combinations of technical expertise were electrical and ICT (47 respondents), pharmaceutical and chemical (47), mechanical and electrical (36), mechanical and ICT (36), pharmaceutical and biotechnology (30), and chemical and biotechnology (29).  At the other end of the spectrum, just two respondents claimed expertise in both electrical technologies and pharmaceuticals, three in electrical and biotechnology, four in ICT and pharmaceuticals, six in biotechnology and ICT, and nine in pharmaceuticals and mechanical technologies.


The survey asked respondents to report their gender, while recognising that this question can be problematic for some people, for a variety of reasons, and providing an ‘opt-out’ option.  In the end, all but six respondents answered the question as ‘male’ or ‘female’.  The responses are summarised in the pie chart below.
Gender While I do not have current data on the overall number of men and women in the profession, when I profiled registered attorneys back in January 2018, I found that trans-Tasman patent attorneys split 70/30 male/female.  In her article Gender (Im)balance in the Patent Attorney Profession in Australia: Myths and Evidence-based Recommendations for Change 28 AIPJ 64 (subscription required to access full article), Queensland-based patent attorney Dr Katherine Rock found female representation in the profession to be 28.2% in late 2016.  The gender split among survey respondents is clearly broadly consistent with these figures.


Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of registered trans-Tasman patent attorneys working in private practice are doing so in Australia or New Zealand.  Across the profession as a whole, 77% of private practice attorneys are based in Australia, 19% in New Zealand, and 4% in other countries (mostly still in the Asia-Pacific region).  Responses to the survey question about location are summarised in the pie chart below.
Location The slight over-representation of Australian respondents relative to New Zealand respondents is not surprising, considering that this blog, as well as interest in changes in the IP profession (A J Park notwithstanding), skews towards Australian practitioners.


In summary, the survey appears to have captured responses from a broad cross-section of the trans-Tasman patent profession.

Employees of listed-group firms, and of larger firms, are slightly over-represented.  These two are correlated, however, since a number of listed-group firms are also among the largest.  On the other hand, sole practitioners and New Zealand-based attorneys are somewhat under-represented, while still responding to the survey in significant numbers.

The gender mix of survey respondents almost exactly reflects that of the profession as a whole, based on the most recent available figures.

In short, the survey responses should provide a good basis for further analysis at the state of the trans-Tasman patent attorney profession. 


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