The work of a patent attorney requires certain key skills. Prospective employers will look for evidence of these skills – or at least the potential to acquire them – in your CV and personal statement.
1. Communication skills
A patent attorney’s work relies on good communication skills, both written and oral. You will need to be proficient at using words to define and describe; to explain and advise; to instruct and to question; and to persuade. You will have to communicate with scientists and engineers; business people; other lawyers; and tribunals such as courts and patent offices.
This variety is what makes the job so enjoyable, but it also demands a versatile communication style. You are, in effect, an interpreter between three worlds – technology, business and law – and you need to speak the language of each.
Of course, communication is a two-way process, so you must also be good at reading other people and at learning from what you hear.
You will be expected to develop more effective communication techniques throughout your career. But you should at least have a reasonable degree of skill from the start, and an enthusiasm for communicating. Expect employers to test for this with both written exercises and interview questions.
2. The ability to work alone
Particularly in private practice, a patent attorney works alone rather than as part of a team. You will therefore need to be able to manage your own workload, motivate yourself to complete tasks on time and be sufficiently self-critical to quality assess your output. Right from day one, you will have to conduct private research and study, whether for your day to day work or to get you through the qualifying exams.
If you are not keen on long periods alone, analysing and writing documents; if you would rather not spend the rest of your life poring over textbooks, legal documents, scientific papers and of course patents, then you should probably not become a patent attorney.
3. A technical bent
You will need to be comfortable with technical information, possibly over a wider range of technologies than you are used to. Even if you are a biochemist, for example, you might still have to get to grips with the mechanical or electrical aspects of a client’s new drug delivery device. You will need to understand basic engineering drawings, circuit diagrams and flow charts, and of course graphs, spreadsheets and other common data presentation formats.
To be good at the job, you should have an enquiring mind. You must be able to ask the right questions and learn quickly, becoming just enough of an expert to provide the legal assistance your client needs. It will also help if your curiosity extends to the commercial aspects of your work: a patent attorney should be as interested in a client’s business as in the technology it works with.
4. Analytical skills
Patent attorneys have to analyse large amounts of information and reach logical, well-reasoned conclusions. You will need to be clear-thinking and rigorous in your analyses, critical of data and evidence, comprehensive in your approach. You will need to get to grips with both the details of a situation and its ‘big picture’ implications, processing legal and commercial information as well as scientific.
5. An eye for detail
In this job, details matter; accuracy is essential. You really do have to care about getting exactly the right word, phrase or definition; one that’s precise, apt, exhaustive, unambiguous and indisputable. Start with your CV.
If you find details tedious, or if inaccuracies slip into your work despite your good intentions, then this is not the job for you.
6. Lateral thinking
Patent attorneys have to be almost as creative as the inventors they work with. Are there alternative ways of protecting this technology? What will competitors do to avoid our patent? Is there another way of interpreting this document? How can we get round this legal problem? Should I look at this situation from another angle?
7. Time and stress management
You will have several pieces of work on the go at once, possibly for different clients and in different technical fields. Some will be urgent, some not; some large, some small; some complex and others relatively easy. New instructions or queries could arrive at any time. And all of this work will carry deadlines, whether legal deadlines or commercial ones driven by your clients’ business needs.
As a patent attorney you will need to be organised. You will have to work quickly, but without loss of accuracy. You must learn to prioritise your case load, to delegate where appropriate and to manage your time efficiently so that all of your tasks get due attention and within the right time-frame.
How do you cope under pressure? Can you maintain the quality of your output even as the work piles on? Can you recognise the signs of stress and take evasive action? Some people are inherently more susceptible to stress than others, and their work more likely to suffer as a result. If that applies to you, a career-long battle against stress could make you very unhappy.
If you are thinking of becoming a patent attorney, ask yourself whether you feel comfortable in the areas described above. Ultimately, only you will know whether you have the necessary skill-set, or the inclination to acquire it.