11 August 2019

Patent Attorney Survey Part 2 – How Life Within Listed Groups Compares with Privately-Owned Firms

Masks - happy and sadIn this article, I am going to look at responses to the second section of the survey of trans-Tasman IP professionals (primarily patent attorneys) that I conducted earlier this year.  This part of the survey addresses various aspects of job satisfaction and the working environment, including ‘happiness’, professional support, and opportunities for career development and advancement.  In particular, I will compare the responses across groups defined by firm structure (i.e. ‘listed group’ firms versus traditional privately-held firms) and seniority, distinguishing between those at the ‘top’ of their organisations (i.e. owners of privately-held firms and employed principals, or the equivalent, within listed group firms) and employees at the levels below who are perhaps aspiring to these roles in future. 

I selected these four categories (‘private owner’ – sample size 54; ‘private employee’ – sample size 97; ‘listed principal’ – sample size 28; and ‘listed non-principal’ – sample size 68) after initially analysing the data, and finding that the responses of firm owners are quite different, in many cases, from those of their employees.  It therefore would not make sense to divide the data only into ‘listed’ versus ‘private’.  And, having made this division among attorneys within privately-held firms, it made sense to make a corresponding division among the listed group respondents.  Indeed, as you will see, there are a number of areas in which the views of principals within the listed group firms differ measurably from those of their less senior colleagues.

If you have not already read my earlier article on respondent demographics, then I recommend you do so.  That article makes the case that the survey responses are, overall, reasonably representative of the profession as a whole – not least because around 25% of all registered patent attorneys working in private practice responded, and this sample of the population is broadly representative of the whole, on characteristics such as gender, firm structure/ownership, and firm size.

In the following analysis, you will find various statements regarding the survey results that are supported by p-values, i.e. measures of statistical significance.  I have written an article explaining how these values were derived, and what they do, and do not, mean.  I recommend reading this article if you really want to understand what can, and cannot, reasonably be concluded from the survey results.  Furthermore, if you intend to take these results and use, or quote, them in a different context, you would be performing a great disservice to yourself (and me) if you do not make the effort to read this article so that you properly understand what you are doing.

While it is difficult to summarise all of the results in brief, I will make a few observations by way of introduction.  Firstly, owners of privately-held firms stand out as being more satisfied with their circumstances in every respect.  This is perhaps unsurprising, in that they are essentially a self-selecting group of individuals who presumably wanted to be business owners, and have achieved that objective.  What might have been less expected is how little difference there is between the other groups.  Certainly there are differences, and many of those differences are statistically significant, even where they may be relatively small.  In many respects, employees of privately-held firms consider themselves on a fairly equal footing with employed principals of listed group firms.  To the extent that there is a difference, listed group principals are far more polarised in their views – broadly speaking, many in this group appear to be either highly satisfied or highly dissatisfied with their circumstances, while fewer take up the middle ground than in other groups.  Non-principal employees of listed group firms appear to be least content with their circumstances, but even so there are many in this group that report agreement, or strong agreement, with positive statements about their employment conditions.

General Job Satisfaction

Respondents were asked whether they were happy working in their current role.  The results, summarised in the chart below, show variations in job satisfaction across the four categories, with private owners generally reporting the highest levels of happiness, followed (in order) by employees of privately-held practices, principals of listed group firms, and non-principal employees of listed group firms.
Happy in current role
While advocates of traditional ‘private ownership’ structures could well see these results as an endorsement of their preferred model, there is actually quite a lot going on here, with implications across the entire profession.
  1. While non-principal employees of listed group firms had the lowest average response (3.31), nearly half (46%) nonetheless reported either agreement or strong agreement with the statement ‘I am happy working in my current role’.
  2. The owners of privately-held firms reported clearly the highest levels of satisfaction with their circumstances (an average of 4.46).  However, there is strong evidence that the apparent disparity between their happiness and that of their employees (4.00) is real (p=3.78x10-4), i.e. that happy owners do not necessarily make for equally happy employees.
  3. Among employees of listed group firms, principals were more likely to report agreement, or strong agreement, with the statement ‘I am happy working in my current role’ (57%, compared with 46% of non-principals).  However, they were also more likely to report disagreement, or strong disagreement (32%, compared with 22% of non-principals).  Indeed, overall there is little evidence (p=0.177) in the survey results that a randomly-selected principal would report a higher level of happiness than a randomly-selected non-principal.  Furthermore, although the distributions of responses for principals and non-principals among the survey responses appear quite different, considering the relatively small sample size of listed group principals (N=28) it is not clear that this is a real effect, rather than an artefact of the sample of survey respondents.  In other words, there is weak evidence, at best, of any difference in happiness between the most senior employees, and more junior employees, within listed group firms.  To the extent that there is evidence of a difference, it appears that being a principal of a listed group firm is a more ‘polarising’ experience than being a less senior employee.
  4. In view of the above, I compared responses from all employees of listed group firms (i.e. principals and non-principals combined) with those of employees (but not owners) of privately held firms.  On average, private firm employees report higher happiness levels that listed group employees (4.00 versus 3.38, p=1.81x10-4).
Overall, it is apparent that a randomly-selected employee of a privately-held firm is likely to report higher levels of happiness than a corresponding employee of a listed group firm.  However, every attorney is an individual with their own circumstances, and the survey results also show that there is a substantial proportion of employees within listed group firms who are happy in their current roles.  It is notable that not a single owner or employee of a privately-held firm reported strong disagreement with the statement ‘I am happy working in my current role’, and fewer than 10% of employees of listed group firms did so.

Performance Expectations

Respondents were asked about performance expectations in their current role.  The results are summarised in the following chart.
Reasonable expectations in current role
It is plainly apparent that owners of privately-held firms consider themselves subject to the most reasonable performance expectations, with around two-thirds strongly agreeing with the statement that 'my firm has reasonable expectations of my performance in my current role' (I will not bother quoting the miniscule p-values associated with a comparison against any of the other three categories).  This is probably not at all surprising – in most cases, the performance expectations upon firm owners are largely self-imposed, although possibly subject to agreement and review with partners/co-owners.

There is essentially no evidence that principals of listed firms consider themselves subject to more reasonable performance expectations than any other employees of those firms (p=0.25).  Taking all employees of listed group firms together (i.e. principals and non-principals combined), and comparing with employees of privately-held firms, there is a substantial difference in average response: 3.39, within the neutral range, for listed group employees versus 4.2, within the ‘agreement’ range, for private firm employees.  It is clear that a randomly-selected employee of a privately-owned firm is likely to consider themselves subject to more reasonable expectations than an employee of a listed group firm (p=2.42x10-6).

Infrastructure and Support

Survey participants were asked to respond to the statement ‘my firm provides the infrastructure and support necessary for me to achieve my performance targets’.  As the summary of results below indicates, those with a significant amount of control over these facilities, i.e. the owners of privately-held firms, were far more likely to agree strongly with this statement than anybody else!  The average response from owners was 4.50, compared with 3.89 from their employees, 3.50 from principals of listed group firms, and 3.28 from non-principal employees of listed group firms.  The distinction between private firm employees and non-principal employees of listed group firms is statistically significant (p=1.14x10-3), despite being relatively small.  However, while responses from listed group principals appear to sit between these two groups, due to the smaller sample size the differences – and thus where this group really sits – are less evident, statistically speaking (p=0.210 and p=0.182, respectively).
Infrastructure and support provided
It therefore appears that all employers – whether they be the owners of privately-held firms, or the managers of listed group firms – may have similar cause for concern that a notable proportion of employee attorneys feel that they are not adequately supported to do their jobs effectively.

Professional Development

When asked about professional development, over 80% of owners of privately-held firms, over 60% of their employees, and over 50% of principals of listed group firms agreed, or strongly agreed, that they are provided with good opportunities in this area.  While just under half (48%) of non-principal employees of listed group firms were in agreement, or strong agreement, only 3% strongly disagreed, compared with 18% of their principal colleagues.  Although there was little difference in the average responses of principals and non-principals in listed group firms, or in the likelihood that a randomly-selected principal would report better development opportunities (p=0.262), the difference in the distribution of the responses is notable.  This suggests a tendency for listed group principals to have experiences at the two extremes.  The chart below summarises all of the responses.
Opportunities for professional development
Employees of privately-held firms seem to feel that they have slightly better opportunities for professional development than their non-principal counterparts in listed group firms (average response score of 3.90 versus 3.40, p=2.44x10-3).

However, by comparison with the professional development opportunities that owners of privately-held firms provide for themselves, all employers might have cause for concern that many  employee attorneys do not feel that they are receiving adequate opportunities for professional development.

Career Advancement

Responses to the statement that ‘I have good opportunities for career advancement’ are summarised in the chart below.
Opportunities for career advancement
Setting aside the responses from owners of privately-held firms (many of whom are presumably already at the pinnacle of their careers, and may therefore have interpreted this question differently from employee attorneys), there is not as much difference between responses of the other three groups as I would have expected.  Principals of listed group firms once again appear polarised, with nearly two thirds split equally between ‘strong agreement’ and ‘strong disagreement’.  Even so, listed-group principals were nearly as likely to report ‘strong agreement’ as employees of privately-held firms, and overall the evidence that private firm employees are generally more content with their career advancement opportunities than listed-group principals is relatively weak (p=0.0479).

Overall, non-principal employees of listed group firms are the least optimistic about their career advancement opportunities, with an average response score of 3.18, compared with 3.72 for private firm employees (p=2.44x10-3).

It is interesting to compare the above responses to those given with respect to the statement ‘I expect to achieve my advancement goals within my current firm’, summarised in the chart below.
Expectation to achieve goals
Although the distributions of responses  look a little different to those associated with the statement that ‘I have good opportunities for career advancement’, in fact there is little evidence that attorneys in any of the four categories have strongly differing views on the advancement opportunities available to them, and the expectation that they will actually achieve their advancement goals with their current employer.  Sixty percent of all participants gave exactly the same response to both statements, and a further 30% gave responses differing by only one step on the scale.  For the remaining 10% (just 26 attorneys) who provided more disparate responses, there is no apparent pattern or trend, with the respondents being distributed across both listed group and privately-held firms, and all levels of seniority.

Job Security

As shown in the chart below, owners of privately-held firms, principals of listed group firms, and employees of privately-held firms all have generally positive perceptions of their job security, on average agreeing (i.e. mean scores between 3.5 and 4.5) with the statement ‘I feel that my job is secure’. 
Job security
Non-principal employees of listed group firms feel less confident about their job security, with an average response score of 3.40.

Looking at the data for evidence of real differences in the perception of job security between the groups, owners of privately-held firms are more likely to consider their jobs secure than their employees (p=0.0236), while non-principal employees of listed group firms tend to feel less secure than either principals of those firms (p=0.0263) or employees of privately-held firms (p=2.36x10-4).  However, overall principals of listed group firms are no more or less likely to consider their jobs secure than employees of privately-held firms, i.e. in terms of perceived job security being a principal of a listed group firm is about on-par with being an employee of a privately-held firm.

‘Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?’

In line with the common job interview question, survey participants were asked to respond to the statement ‘I expect that I will still be working with my current firm in five years time’.  Unsurprisingly, an clear majority (70%) of owners of privately-held firms strongly agreed with this statement (and doubtless some of those who did not are contemplating retirement and/or some other exit from the profession within that timeframe).  Attorneys in other categories were more ambivalent, as the chart below shows.
Working in five years
Again, principals of listed group firms are polarised on this topic, being equally (and symmetrically) divided between positive and negative responses, and tending to strong agreement or disagreement.  Interestingly, however, there is little evidence that a randomly-selected listed group principal is any more or less likely to see themselves leaving their current employer within the next five years than an employee of a privately-held firm (p=0.0906).

Non-principals of listed group firms, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to be contemplating a departure within the foreseeable future than their counterparts in privately-held firms (p=9.39x10-5).  In fact, this was the only question in this section of the survey for which any group produced an mean response score below 3.0, with non-principal employees of listed group firms rating their expectation of sticking around for the next five years at just 2.87 on average.

Concluding Comments

If anyone was expecting (or hoping) that the survey would show up listed group firms as being clearly ‘inferior’ working environments for patent attorneys, the results presented above really do not bear this out.  When it comes to job satisfaction, it appears that being a business owner, as opposed to an employee, is a far bigger factor than the corporate structure of the firm in which an attorney is employed. 

While non-principal employees of listed group firms seem to consider themselves slightly worse off than the other employee groups considered here, the difference overall is not huge – all employee groups averaged between 3.31 and 4.00 on the umbrella statement that ‘I am happy working in my current role’, with similarly small spreads on most of the other individual aspects covered by the survey.  Indeed, it is worth considering whether the relatively high proportion of employee respondents reporting neutral or negative responses to a number of statements in the survey should be of concern to all employers, whether in private or listed organisations.

In the next article in this series, I will look at the responses to the third section of the survey, which addresses the mix of work performed by attorneys, and their experiences in working with clients.


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