Starting my patent career…
It was in my final year at university, after a year of academic research, that I decided that a life in a lab was not for me. I had made enough inactive white powder to last me a lifetime but I was still keen to use my chemistry degree in some fashion. Training to become a patent attorney is a well trodden path for someone in the position I was in.
It has to be said that in my field, chemistry, it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure a training position without a PhD. I was fortunate enough however to secure a training position at Dehns, one of the largest firms of patent attorneys in the UK and one with a very strong reputation in training. Training in the office environment is not at all like university as you learn on-the-job (and when exam time comes, you revise in your own time).
There are a couple of training courses which are often used by patent firms to get their trainees through the first set of exams. These are run by Brunel University and Queen Mary, University of London and it is worth checking whether a prospective employer will send you on these courses. Whilst I am not convinced they are a good preparation for the final exams, they provide an easier way to get through prelim exams and to meet other trainees at other firms.
How my career has progressed
Since qualifying and being made an associate and subsequently partner of the firm, I have been developing my own portfolio of clients and now find myself a frequent traveller around Europe. My workload is very much client based which means I meet inventors and draft their patent applications. However, within a large firm, like Dehns, there are likely to be partners concentrating on handling European work for companies based in the USA or Japan who need to get their patents sorted for Europe.
I personally enjoy meeting inventors and learning about their innovations and quite enjoy the travel aspects of the job. As long as it doesn’t involve going anywhere near Heathrow. I would personally be less happy working with cases drafted by others all day therefore it might be worth checking what type of work a particular private practice firm is offering to see what might suit you better.
A highlight for me is also the opportunity to argue my clients cases in proceedings before the European Patent Office. Patent attorneys almost act like barristers before the EPO, presenting orally to three examiners. If this appeals to you, it is again worth looking into whether your employer handles a lot of opposition and appeal work. Some in-house departments farm out this type of work and it might be rare in smaller firms.
Advice and working realities
I would strongly recommend working with as many different people as possible whilst training so that you receive a wide variety of work and experience the different ways a patent attorney works. It may be worth checking whether a prospective employer allows you to work with more than one partner as some do not.
Larger firms tend to encourage trainees into working specifically in their field, for example biochemists handle biochemistry, engineers handle engineering. If you are looking to handle work across a wider variety of technologies, small firms might be better for you.
The final exams are taken around four years into your career, although you would also sit a preliminary European exam at two and a half years. Please note these are difficult. If you have had enough of revision and exams then this career is not for you. For six months you are going to have some dull evenings and dull weekends spent at a desk with a large black book and failing at least one of the exams is common so you may well face a second round of revision.
If you are considering applying for a job in this sector, you need to have a very good first degree from a very good university and at least a 2.1 or first as a minimum. Also, consider whether private practice may suit you better than an in-house department. Competition for places tends to be fierce across the board, so you should apply as widely as possible to maximise your chances of success.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need some particular skills to be good at this job. It is not just a requirement to be a good scientist, it is almost more important that you can write a coherent sentence, that you are organised and that you can convince clients that you are a safe pair of hands for their potentially very valuable property.