by Thomas G. Field, Jr., Professor, University of New Hampshire (UNH) School of Law (formerly Franklin Pierce Law Center)
There is much ado about generalist and specialty law school rankings, but it is difficult to understand why they should make much difference in hiring new, much less experienced, patent lawyers.
Technical training figures prominently too, but that is difficult to factor in. As has been discussed on this blog, two others and I published a paper concerning the correspondence between the percentage of attorneys with formal training in computer science (our focus) or engineering and the percentage of computer-based patents issued. There we argued, as I strongly believe, that the PTO’s discrimination against computer science graduates is irrational.
The paper also implies that one needs formal training in a particular art to competently draft and prosecute applications in that art. Most patent attorneys would reject the idea. Despite co-authorship, I do too.
I regard the most important technical criteria to be attorneys’ (or agents’) capacity to be educated by inventors and, as one of our alumni put it several years ago, function as a mediator between inventors and examiners. In that regard, I recall the late Robert Shaw. Prior to coming to Pierce in the mid-1970s, where he taught claim drafting and prosecution until he retired, Bob was a full-time attorney for MIT. It’s difficult to imagine that he could have had much expertise with regard to the wide range of applications drafted and prosecuted on behalf of an incredibly sophisticated faculty. Yet there is no reason to doubt the quality of his work for people there or at other universities. I do not envy those who attempt to judge such capacity from college transcripts and unrelated work experience.
Moving from technical to legal training, I regard the most important criteria to be the capacity to identify what decision makers will find critical, spot flaws in opponents’ positions and to argue effectively for their own. Regarding potential clerks, Justice Scalia famously stated, “I’m going to be picking from the law schools that . . . admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, O.K.?” (as quoted by Adam Liptak, On the Bench and Off, the Eminently Quotable Justice Scalia, N.Y. TIMES, May 12, 2009, at A13. If so, what’s gained from the education? There’s also risk of loss. I was struck by the observation that, “For most of the past fifty years, attending Harvard Law School was a miserable experience for the majority of its students.” Kevin K. Washburn, Elena Kagan and the Miracle at Harvard (2010). It is difficult to see how students would be better off for such an experience — unlikely to be unique.
General ranking may be useful for identifying some of the best and the brightest. But many choose schools based on a variety of other factors including cost, effects on partners, and quality of life. It would therefore seem that indicia of drive and intelligence other than that reflected in decisions of law school admissions committees deserve consideration.
In tough economic times, hiring seems more likely to turn on the skills and knowledge candidates have, rather than what they are capable of acquiring. If so, hires may be based on program rankings. But, as I have pointed out at length in Ranking Law Schools’ Special Programs, 50 IDEA 335 (2010), all rankings are suspect, whether based on the number and fame of faculty, the number of specialty courses offered or something else. In that article, at 344, I ultimately wonder whether “anyone other than a fool would favor one candidate over another based on reputations of professors neither candidate may have seen or lists of courses neither may have taken.” You might too.