The Patent Agent Bottleneck – Regionally

Issue 31 By Zhou Yi, China IP,[Patent]

Although the Taizhou Wuzhou Intellectual Property Agency has been established for half a year, the founder Ye Xianhui told this journalist that his company is not an IP agency in the real sense, because it does not have the qualified attorneys necessary for patent applications.  

According to sources the Taizhou Intellectual Property Office, to register a patent agency in Taizhou, three patent attorneys is the minimum requirement. Though this requirement may seem easy, Ye Xianhui was embarrassed to admit that since its establishment, his agency hadn’t employed even one patent attorney, although he had searched all over the Internet and job markets, and offered a base pay of 3,000-3,999 Yuan.

On the phone, Ye seemed despaired: “Where on earth can I find patent attorneys? We are desperately in need of them!”

Small cities – “No signs” of patent attorneys

Data from the Taizhou Intellectual Property Office shows that in 2008, the number of patent applications in Taizhou (a city in the Yangtze River Delta) were 9,043. However, this city only has four patent agencies: Taizhou Fangyuan Patent Agency, Taizhou Zhongwei Patent Agency, Taizhou Nanfang Trademark Patent Agency and Taizhou Lantian Intellectual Property Agency. The four agencies employ a total of 21 patent attorneys.

Ye estimated that half of the 9,043 applications were filed in Shanghai or Hangzhou. But he also said, “We do not lack business. Sometimes our government provides us cases. What we lack are attorneys.”

Besides recruitment, Ye Xianhui also attempted to poach attorneys from companies in other cities. But this didn’t work either because of the limited resources. “Attorneys doing well in other places won’t come to this small city. We can only look for those who are willing to start from scratch. But this plan was not workable either. They are like hot cakes – needed everywhere”, Ye told this journalist.  

For Ye Xianhui, the talent hunting has been a very upsetting process. His plan for the future is rather conservative: “I hope to recruit at least one patent attorney this year, and try to obtain a certified patent attorney staff within two years.” 

When asked about looking for attorneys in other ways, Ye said that he had thought about brain gain from the western part, but on second thought he realized that this answer was “almost impossible”.

Xi’an Tongda Intellectual Property Agency, after seven years of evolution since the restructuring, has come out on top in the amount of patent applications in the five northwestern provinces. During the last seven years however, the number of patent attorneys in this company has grown from 4 to 12 - almost equals to its life span. More unexpectedly, although the company has consistently been in operation the entire time, it has only been called on by 10 applicants during seven years! 

The general manager of this agency, Liu Baoshuai, told this journalist: “It’s too hard to find a patent attorney. The Job market has no patent attorneys. Job fairs provide only a small number. We are at the end of our wits. We organize lectures in colleges and universities to give students ‘formative education’ about patent attorneys, hoping that they will join us after their graduation.” 

As for the cause of the employment difficulty, Liu attributed it to the low “yield rate” of patent attorneys and the harsh requirements placed upon them. He said: “We require them to have some related experiences. They also have to take two years training after coming to our company. During this period, their salary is not as high as some media coverage leads them to believe it will be. They only get the basic salary without bonus, because they are not assigned cases to follow. With so many restrictions, searching for a patent attorney is just like searching for a needle in a haystack”.

The type of patent attorney mentioned by Liu Baoshuai is not a patent attorney in the real sense of the word. They don’t have the certification to be qualified patent attorneys. Liu said, humorously but also helplessly, “We are not particularly concerned about the attorney’s qualification. If we are, we are attempting the ‘mission impossible’. You know, in Shanxi province, only a very few people can pass the qualification examination each year.”

Beijing – The Fight for Qualified Patent Attorneys

Xie Shunxing, President of CN-KnowHow Intellectual Property Agent Limited, likes to use a few figures to show the level of the patent representation business in Beijing. One figure is 1/3; the ratio of the number of patent attorneys in practice in Beijing to the total patent attorneys in practice in the whole country. Although Beijing has the enviable patent attorney resources, Yu Gang from Kangxin Partners, P.C. told this journalist: “We have 220 employees. It’s a big number. However, we are badly short of patent attorneys. We have 108 people engaged in patent practices, of which only 27 are patent attorneys. Sometimes, this number is a blemish in our international bids.”  

Many large agencies in Beijing, such as Kangxin and CN-KnowHow, have many people engaged in patent practices. In Xie and Yu’s eyes, practitioners who are not certified patent attorneys are not necessarily inferior to the certified patent attorneys. Some are even more qualified. These people have a special name: “patent engineers”.

Li Hong (an alias name) is one of the “patent engineers”.

Li graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science and the Master of Law degree. Believing that the industry offered good career prospects, she chose patent representation as her career. However, she miscalculated and she didn’t take the patent attorneyship examination, but chose instead to work first. She said: “I didn’t take the exam because I thought it didn’t mean much to the work. I wanted to accumulate some working experiences first. I thought it was better for me.”

Four years have passed since her admission in Kangxin Partners, P.C. in 2005 and Li still regrets the lost opportunity because she is still unlicensed. 

“I really don’t have time to review the books. I am overloaded with work from 9 a.m. to late at night. I don’t think the exam would be too difficult for me. If I were given enough time to review the material, I’m sure I can pass it”, said Li.

She tried the exam in 2007 and failed, because she was left only one week to review books. Last year, she couldn’t squeeze in time for the exam either. Reluctantly Li said, “It seems that most likely I will also miss this year’s exam.”

Actually, Li is very anxious about the qualification certificate. She thinks it is a kind of external packaging, especially when she is with clients. She joked, “You see, my title in the name card is patent engineer. How can I explain it to my client? It is so frustrating.”

The “patent engineer” title is also a disadvantage to the practical work. One thing that Li Hong is so uncomfortable with is that she signs her name on the patent application files. “Without a certificate, it is not proper to do a patent reexamination or annulment. Without the certificate you are just a common citizen, and a common citizen’s ability to perform patent law is not always accepted by the reexamination committee.” 

At the beginning of 2008, Li Hong was promoted to head of a large business team at her company, and put in charge of patent application quality. She has nine members on her team, of whom only two had the patent qualification certificate. She said: “I can feel the stress sometimes. I am the leader of those having certificates. We (patent engineers) are so eager to pass the qualification examination.”

However, Li Hong does not put the blame on the company. She just hopes to get some support from it. Yu Gang said: “Our company encourages us to take the qualification examination. The problem is that if we leave, our work will back up on our desk. Fortunately, if we have been working for five years, our company will give us sufficient time to prepare for the examination.”

Xie Shunxing told this journalist: “Patent agencies in Beijing are relatively developed. They are not concerned with having enough attorneys or whether the attorney has the patent certification qualification, but instead they focus on the actual professional competence of the staff. Some of our patent engineers have been engaged in this business for over seven years. They are very competent. Of course, a qualification certificate will make a good situation better.”

(Translated by Hu Xiaoying)

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