Why I started a career in intellectual property
My interest in intellectual property was first ignited whilst studying MBA electives in technology commercialisation at the London Business School where I was lucky enough to be as part of an exchange programme with PhD students from my alma mater, University College London. I found the commercial aspects of technology-driven businesses much more exciting than performing core research and development (R&D) myself (as I was doing at the time for an advanced engineering start-up spun out of UCL).
I could see that patents and intellectual property was in many ways key to enabling businesses to capture and convert the value generated by their R&D into sales and profits. After coming across the patent attorney profession, it seemed like a relatively straightforward and risk-free way of being involved in technology commercialisation, which appeared inherently to be a very risky activity – particularly for start-ups. That has turned out to be true – I now get a lot of vicarious enjoyment out of helping my clients succeed, by securing vital and valuable intellectual property rights on their behalf. It’s also great to feel that your activities are relevant in the real world by helping make a generally positive contribution to the economy and wider society, which maybe is not so clear in other professions.
Key skills of a patent attorney
At its core, the job of the patent attorney presents something of a unique challenge. It is essentially an intellectual game with a set of rules; in order to win the game and secure valuable patent protection for your client, you need a unique mix of technical, analytical, legal, written and oral advocacy skills. These skills are honed on-the-job during the formative years of training. Learning through doing while being mentored by a supervisor is really the only way to learn to do the job effectively, and so I like to think that patent attorneys have a lot in common with highly skilled craftsmen. However, in order to pass the final exams and qualify, there is undoubtedly a hefty amount of individual study required, in particular to learn the extensive substantive and procedural law – in other words – the rules of the game.
There are a number of ways in which patent attorneys get to deploy these skills – in writing applications for patents, in negotiations with patent offices over the granting of those applications, in disputes before patent offices with third parties over patentability, and in disputes over infringement of those patents. This can all be great fun and successfully applying those skills to win a big case for a client can be massively rewarding.
Being a patent attorney is only a small part of the job
The great thing about being a patent attorney, as with many professions, is that there are so many more aspects to the job than just doing the role described above. In fact, in the long run, there is a sufficiently diverse range of possible career paths and types of roles for patent attorneys to cater for all tastes. Within private practice, with increasing seniority, patent attorneys must work together in partnership teams to construct profitable practices and working environments around them. To succeed in this environment one must also be an effective business development person, as well as a commercial person and people manager. Certainly, the career progression requirements in private practice these days are less straightforward than they used to be and simply being ‘a good patent attorney’ will not alone equate to progression to the top of the profession. If the prospect of working in a partnership isn’t attractive to you, then there are many other possibilities including working as a sole practitioner, as an in-house patent attorney, managing in-house patent portfolios, or moving off into other areas entirely including patent strategy consultancy, legal process outsourcing and litigation to name but a few.
Getting your foot in the door
Getting that first position within the profession can be the hardest step. That is not to say that from there on it is an easy ride. The studying, occasional long hours, dedication and application necessary to achieve a successful and fulfilling career are also extremely challenging. Rather, what I mean is that the odds are stacked against you even if you meet the criteria, as there are often a very large number of applicants for relatively few traineeship positions at relatively few firms, allowing the best firms to take only the best candidates.
Firms are becoming increasingly adept at differentiating candidates’ natural aptitude and potential to do the job using the interview process. Personally, I look for candidates who make the grade technically and analytically, have some form of applied research under their belt, have an ability to communicate clearly, particularly abstract technical ideas, who demonstrate they like a challenge and like to understand how things work. Applicants also need to be able to demonstrate an interest and awareness of some of the wider commercial context of the whole R&D and technology commercialisation process.
Once you are lucky enough to get your foot in the door, however, the whole range of the profession is there for the taking.
A time of change
Is now a good time to become a patent attorney? Absolutely, yes. The core skills of a patent attorney are to a good degree safeguarded and as much as some clients would like to be able to, those skills are difficult to commoditise, offshore and replicate using intelligent machines, unlike those of some other professions. Our role is vital to an intellectual property system that is getting increasing attention at board level and in investment decisions from businesses worldwide. Having said that, our profession is coming under significant pressure from a number of different sources and only the patent firms that adapt their business models and innovate their service offerings will continue to thrive. The next ten years will be a time of change. Within this context, there will undoubtedly be exciting opportunities for vibrant and successful careers for the most dynamic and dedicated individuals. It is those individuals that firms such as HGF look to recruit.