Why I decided to become a patent attorney
With a physics degree from Oxford I, like many patent attorneys, wanted to keep my hand in with science but not sit behind a lab bench (or in front of a bunch of students). Speaking to a careers adviser two paths that were identified were patent attorney, or salesman for a regional brewery. Mostly I think I made the right choice.
I joined a leading UK firm after a brief summer holiday and worked though the qualification route. I’d been warned that the exams were difficult and probably lost a total of six to twelve months’ worth of evenings finding out that they were even harder than I’d feared. Certainly one thing that I’ve learnt is that failing exams is painful and not something that anyone ever expects to do but at least I was in good company with lots of other people in the profession!
After qualification I was keen on partnership and lucky enough, after a post-qualification move, to become a partner at Kilburn & Strode. Aside from being well paid, this means that I get to balance doing work with management and business development responsibilities that keep the job very interesting indeed.
The challenges of the job and the business
Luckily I’m fascinated in how things work and so the day to day job has always kept me interested. It is a little bit like doing a different crossword every day, but being paid for it – you have an invention, a patent office somewhere says that it’s not as clever as you think because they have some ‘prior art’ that proves otherwise and you have to argue the point with them.
We find ourselves going out to argue the point in person at the European Patent Office regularly. After a while you become accustomed to the charms of Munich, but I still enjoy going to other centres at the Hague and Berlin and the argumentation itself is an excellent mix of friendliness, formality and the odd moment of adversarial hostility!
There are many other challenges within the job, however, including giving broader advice to clients about how they can capture their inventions in the first place, setting up systems, developing worldwide portfolios and so forth. Things really get interesting when litigation looms and some of my clients spend a lot of their time fighting cases all around the world.
Another exciting challenge in private practice is helping the business run. This ranges from training attorneys for the future, through managing colleagues and support staff, to looking at where the business might go next. Business development is something I’ve always particularly enjoyed – identifying where new clients might be found, meeting with them and persuading them that we are the right people for them is always a challenge.
One of the most pleasant things I’ve discovered as I’ve got older is that clients are also people; they have to go to work and get through the day somehow and so often if you can add a bit of fun to their day on top of your unquestionable competence, working together can be genuinely pleasurable.
Advice if you are considering patents
Luckily the old requirements of being able to speak French and German reasonably well are less important now because the European qualifying exams have moved on. You need to be literate, you need to be able to get right into an invention to understand how it works, you need to be able to put together a persuasive argument.
At the beginning, however, perhaps the most important thing is that you need to make yourself useful in an arena where you have absolutely no experience. This is the humble moment that we all go through, but doing a simple job well and building up to the more complex job is the way forward. It is an excellent career if you can do all of these things.
Intellectual property is going through an interesting time; it is in the press more and more, inventions are becoming key to the growth of many companies and so the patent protection surrounding them is equally important. At the same time, however, there is some backlash. The Open Source Lobby is concerned that innovation is being stifled not promoted by IP and this is an area we have to look at very carefully.
The growth of so called ‘trolls’ – companies who stockpile IP purely for purpose of suing third parties – is a particular concern and the patent profession is engaged with government and policy makers to look at how the system can be developed to ensure that it meets its original purpose best, namely stimulating innovation to the extent that it relates to inventive subject matter. The future is exciting for IP, challenges lie ahead, and we’re keen that the next generation of good, literate, scientists helps us meet those challenges!