Intellectual property law can be broken out into three separate categories: patents, trademarks and copyrights. Patents protect the rights of inventors, preventing others from making or offering the “invention” for a limited time. It’s essentially a property right. Applying for a patent is sometimes challenging, so people often turn to intellectual property lawyers. For their expertise, many earn six-figure salaries.
In 2012, attorney salaries averaged $130,880 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But this figure accounts for the earnings of all lawyers, regardless of practice area. A survey by the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) provides a better idea of compensation in patent law. As of 2010, the average salary of respondents was $205,000 a year. At the time of the survey, total cash income for 2011 was expected to be $210,000 annually.
As in any career, salaries vary by position, and patent lawyers are no exception. Private associates earned $165,000 a year, according to the AIPLA survey. Those in solo practice earned $169,000, while attorneys in corporate legal departments working in intellectual property (IP) law made $175,000 annually. Attorneys in corporate IP departments earned $213,701 a year, and heads of these departments made $255,000. Partners topped the list, at $374,328 a year.
The majority of law firms still charge clients based on billable hours, or the time spent by associates or partners on business matters. In 2010, IP attorneys had a billing rate of $340 per hour. Partners charged $410 an hour, while associates brought in $300 an hour. All IP attorneys accrued 1,650 billable hours for 2010. Though this works out to $561,000 in billings per attorney, the median billed to clients was $486,500 for the year.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities are expected to grow by as much as 10 percent from 2010 to 2020. This is slower than the national average of all occupations in the U.S., a projected 14 percent. While the 10 percent growth works out to the creation of 73,600 new positions, some of which are likely to be in patent law, expect competition to be strong. Recent law graduates often outnumber openings. A willingness to relocate to underserved areas of the nation can improve employment opportunities.