On the whole, I was a bit of a rubbish bench scientist. By comparison, I was pretty good at understanding science and technology, and analysing data. What I needed was a career that would use my skills and would not expose my weaknesses (at least not quite so obviously as research).
So, after a brief post-doc at Bristol University, in 1996 I left the world of research behind and entered the IP profession as a trainee examiner in what was then called the Patent Office (now the UK Intellectual Property Office). I haven’t looked back since.
In fact, my move into the IP world was not quite as desperate or random as I have made it sound. When I was growing up our next door neighbour worked at the Patent Office. I was, therefore, vaguely aware of this mysterious place where (according to my child’s imagination) mad inventors demonstrated crazy contraptions to fascinated officials.
Many years, a biochemistry degree and a PhD in molecular biology later, those crazy contraptions had long been forgotten. However just as my failings as a research scientist became ever more apparent to me, my awareness of IP grew.
With a more mature understanding of the workings of the Patent Office I recognised that IP was intrinsically linked with the science I was trying to do. Just 30 miles from where I lived (across the Severn bridge in Newport), my scientific world collided with another world, excitedly recalled from my childhood picture. The very complexity of patents appealed to me and biotechnology seemed to be a particularly interesting sector with the IP industry.
Moving on – becoming a patent attorney
Working as an examiner provided an excellent route into the IP profession, but I soon realised that I would enjoy being a patent attorney more.
The Patent Office had felt like a half-way house between the intensely intellectual world of academia and the very practical world of business, and I decided that I wanted to go all the way towards the latter. I took a leap of faith and left the job that had changed my outlook on working life to join a small private practice of patent attorneys.
Unlike today, where structured training is enjoyed in many firms, in those days (1999), training in patent attorney firms was largely self-driven. However, I was lucky enough to be sent on the Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary, University of London) diploma course in order to pass the foundation papers. I was also very lucky to be in a firm with a heavy workload in contentious patent matters (primarily oppositions and appeals at the European Patent Office), and therefore got early and extensive exposure to that part of my job which I still enjoy the most.
Training didn’t stop after qualifying to become a UK chartered patent attorney and a European patent attorney. I spent several years concentrating on professional work, building my confidence, abilities and reputation. I also learned that, just like any other business, a firm of patent attorneys needs to be managed and operated in a way that makes money. Clients won’t pay large fees for attorneys to spend hours indulging their personal fascination for complex intellectual puzzles.
It’s imperative to have the client’s desired outcome and budget in mind, and to act accordingly. I was given several management positions and at various times was responsible for management of the Life Science group, development of overseas clients, and managing the contentious practice services we offered.
New challenges – current roles
The profession is ever changing and a feature of work as a patent attorney is that it offers new challenges at frequent intervals. I have recently moved firms to take up a partnership position at Barker Brettell. In addition to continuing with professional work, a significant duty of my new position is to lead the development of our new, relocated, London office. A large part of my job is now focussed on business development. It’s easy to forget (or not realise) when you are in the early stages of your career, that clients just don’t grow on trees – they need to be found and attracted to the services you offer, over and above those of all the other high quality competing firms. Competition is fierce, and never more so than in today’s hard economic times.
That means that whilst I might, for example, spend the morning preparing written arguments for an appeal, I’m just as likely to be out at a networking event at lunchtime or in the evening. I might spend a significant part of my day putting together a charging proposal for a new client, or preparing pitch documents and presentations to try and attract work.
Frequent travel within the UK and overseas is a necessary part of business development and client relationship maintenance, and there’s always new contacts to follow-up. Around all this I need to fit in writing articles for publication on our website, keeping up with changes in the law and in my business sector and engaging in continued professional development (CPD) to meet the regulatory board’s requirements.
No day is the same. New opportunities and responsibilities arise every day and my inbox is always full of interesting things to occupy me. By the end of every week I might be exhausted, but in 15 years of doing this job I have certainly never been bored.