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The problem with electronics and engineering.  Why is it so difficult to recruit patent attorneys?

Patent Attorney Recruitment

You’re a great firm.  No you’re a fantastic firm.  The partners are just lovely.  You deal with most large electronics and engineering companies anyone could care to name.  Your attorneys have loads of autonomy, they deal with clients directly, the job is varied across drafting, prosecution and oppositions work.  You pay bloody well.  Really bloody well.  And when you say that there are partnership opportunities you really mean it.  So why in the hell can’t you recruit anyone?

I thought I’d try and shed some light on just how difficult it is in this area at the moment and make some suggestions on some things you might want to consider.  The list is not in any particular order, it’s more of a shopping list of possibilities you could try if you don’t already.  I appreciate that no firm would be lacking in every area below, in fact some firms address many of these points well and still continue to struggle.  It is a difficult market but if some of these points could provide for potential areas of improvement then you may be losing out to your competitors.

1)      You’re looking for the same thing as everyone else.  This is a huge problem.  A lot of firms want to recruit people at finalist up to a year or so post qualified.  The problem with this is that 3-5 years ago firms were simply not taking on a sufficient amount of new entrants to the profession to meet the demand.  So this means that when a candidate does materialise they have lots and lots of options.  In many instances you may not even get their CV to make your case.  The recruiter they’re working with won’t suggest you because the candidate has some preferences of their own; they apply directly somewhere because a friend works there; they think they want to work in house (sometimes they do, sometimes they think they do - unfortunately unless they are well advised this thinking may not be addressed); or a myriad of other reasons.  Even when you do decide to see them, they could have been offered another job before your interview comes around or you could be competing with many other firms (we’ve heard recent instances where candidates are receiving offers from 5-10 firms).

2)      Firms are much better at keeping the people they have.  They are far from perfect but they are much better.  We don’t find, nowadays, many firms that are significantly underpaying people for example.  Firms are also generally better at listening to staff and taking care that they have opportunities to progress.  Yes this isn’t always the case and people do still move, but firms are definitely more mindful that the best way to manage recruitment is not to lose anyone you need to replace in the first place.

3)      You don’t pay enough.  Supply is very low at the moment and the last time this happened to this extent there was a major spike in salaries for electronics and engineering attorneys.  We expect that to happen again in the next twelve months.  Firms that are more nimble are likely to benefit.

4)      You underestimate the competition.  It is easy to believe you are the best firm out there what with your lovely partners and dress down Fridays but I can guarantee that there will be someone doing it better.  Probably more than one.  It’s a constantly moving target.  Whatever you have on the table there will be someone else offering the same if not better.  High salaries, flexible working, partnership opportunities, whatever it is someone else will be offering it too.

5)      You assume you know what people are looking for because it was what you were looking for.  You emphasise these sales points to future employees, recruiters, anyone who will listen.  The problem is that if these messages are not what people want you can appear out of touch, or worse you put emphasis on a key point that is not of value in the market meaning that you make compromises in other areas (such as a lower salary for example).  Selling a car with specially modified leather seating that is very expensive to put in adds cost but may not add value.  If no one wants the leather seating why are you charging them for it?

6)      You are not flexible enough.  Inflexibility kills recruitment opportunity.  Does the role really need to be based in your office?  Could it not be a remote working opportunity?  Why do you need people physically in the same location as you in order to progress?  What about part time workers?  Just because someone got a ‘B’ in their A levels eleven years ago, is that really a sensible reason to exclude them?  Do you need someone to have worked on exactly the same technology profile as you or is it reasonable to assume that a good person might be able to adapt?

7)      You don’t understand what attorneys want.  Quite often people at senior associate level move because they want to be a partner somewhere and think they might increase their odds by moving.  Wishy-washy detail is not going to help with this, they need to know specifics, timescales, earning potential etc.  But it’s also important at a lower level, newly qualified attorneys worry about this too and if you can give them a clue as to how their career might progress that will be massively helpful.  But then it’s not all about progression, environment is important too, people need to get a sense for what working for your firm is like, the range of work, control, autonomy - you need to listen to what attorneys are asking for and that might help you secure them.  You also need to make sure these messages are clearly communicated to the market via advertising, recruiters and, probably most importantly of all, how your current employees speak about the firm.

8)      You need to act super quickly and super decisively.  Get a CV, decide you need to run it past all of the partners, including Cyril who is on holiday, then you need to discuss it and bring the candidate in.  Too late.  It’s quite common for attorneys to be placed within a week of a firm receiving a CV in electronics and engineering.  The recruiter or the candidate told you what money they want to move but you think, ‘that sounds a bit much, I’ll offer them a fair rate.’  Nope, not in this market.  The likelihood is someone will pay it.  Yes of course, there are reasonable limits but if you are behind market in your pay structure you will consistently and constantly miss out, and if salaries do spike as we expect this is only going to get worse (and even though changing your pay structure to accommodate someone may well be an issue, take care that you are not significantly under market and at danger of losing people).

9)      You don’t want to try more radical solutions.  One of the most radical would be obtaining a sponsorship licence.  Yes we know it’s expensive and bureaucratic.  But some of your competitors have one and whilst you’re losing work because you haven’t the people to do it they have happily integrated accomplished attorneys from around the world.  Yes this is not a silver bullet solution, it’s not your failsafe against recruitment failure werewolves but opening your mind and options will produce positive results.  There is a small community of US (and some of them now European) qualified attorneys working in London and we expect that this will increase.  But there would be the possibility of pulling people from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada or many other jurisdictions where there the legal systems have commonalities. 

10)   You might need a square peg for your round hole.  Yes you want to recruit a newly qualified attorney but would you want to be sitting on that position for 6 months? A year? Two? Or would it have been better to recruit a senior associate? Yes you may have to worry about making them a partner but ultimately you might be in a much better overall position as a result.  Could you take more on more raw trainees?  Yes it doesn’t solve immediate issues and in fact creates more work but given that it can take a long time to recruit it might be better to increase the trainee count to help resolve staffing concerns in the longer term.

11)   There is undoubtedly attrition amongst candidates.  With so many firms looking for people many of the approaches that recruiters use are less successful.  A headhunt is often most effective when someone has not been headhunted at all/recently but if this is the third or fourth call they’ve had this month they are much less likely to hear what you have to say no matter how excellent the opportunity.  Advertising, headhunting or any other recruitment methods are limited by what is a very finite market with a very finite number of people looking to move at any one time.  Sometimes the best solution may simply be to be patient and wait.

Finally, a note for potential candidates.  Yes there are lots of options but I would argue that’s more of a reason to use a recruiter not the opposite.  We can make sure that opportunities align with your interests, negotiate the best salary or simply (and don’t underestimate the value of this) manage your schedule in both arranging interviews and collecting feedback – think of us as your recruitment butler.  Who doesn’t want a butler?

Pete Fellows is the Managing Director of Fellows and Associates.  He would like a team of butlers.  You can help him achieve his dream.

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