Tough times for IP lawyers

As we report today, IP boutique Bristows has decided to postpone its entire promotion process following the resignations of five patent litigation partners late last year. It seems on the face of it a pretty drastic response: Bristows’ IP franchise is not going to be capsized by a team departure, even if it does represent a fifth of the partnership.

But then Bristows is one of those rare animals in The Lawyer’s UK 100 – a 26-strong, all-equity partnership where partners have virtually always been promoted internally. Because the group of five is still serving out its six-month notice period, Bristows’ management has taken the view that it is not appropriate that the group should be part of promotion discussions. Hence the delay.

“Our view was that we weren’t going to rush off and fill a perceived hole until this settled down and we could look at our associate pool,” Bristows managing partner Pat Treacy says. It’s entirely logical, but it must be disappointing for senior IP associates there, who now face a six-month delay before discussions resume. Frustratingly for them, the firm has not made up a single partner since July 2005.

Bristows is not the only firm that has had to manage its associates’ expectations. According to research for The Lawyer Career Report, which will be published later this month, it is one of nine firms in the UK 100 that did not promote any internal candidates this year. The others are Bircham Dyson Bell, the perpetually merging Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons, Cobbetts, Forsters, Lawrence Graham, Mishcon de Reya, Morgan Cole and Watson Burton.

And yet Bircham, Cobbetts, Lawrence Graham, Mishcon and Watson Burton all made lateral hires into the partnership. So is there anything wrong with these firms’ internal promotion programmes?Bircham, which has made a virtue out of aggressive ambitions, last promoted internally in June 2003, but the firm is understood to be considering a handful of candidates this time round. Managing partner Guy Vincent claims that his firm’s younger associate profile has been a major factor. “We’re not shelving people, but growing people,” he says. It seems that it’s just as much of a schlep to partnership at smaller firms as it is at their bigger cousins.

A final thought: the prospects of partnership for IP lawyers are diminishing dramatically. The City firms are downsizing and if even Bristows, the IP shop par excellence, is delaying offering partnership, then alarm bells should start ringing.