This is your moment: tips on how to succeed the second time around
Patent exams are notoriously difficult. This is a harsh but true fact for those hoping to qualify as patent attorneys. But what makes it all the more difficult is that for many, until now, they have been the candidates that breezed through external examinations and are therefore unaccustomed to failure. If this is the scenario you’ve found yourself in, take heart – you are not alone. It’s time to regroup and adopt a fresh approach. We asked Carrie Johnson, patent attorney at Barker Brettell, and former chief examiner for The Patent Examination Board, responsible for setting and marking the examination papers for the UK patent qualification, for her advice on achieving success:
Q: A student has just received the results of one of their patent exams and discovered that they have failed. What are their next steps?
Have a think about why you failed.
Did things simply not go right on the day? You’re only human – it happens, and you probably did everything right in the run-up but it just didn’t come together. You now have the experience of what the exam was like, how long it took to answer the questions; how the travel, venue, and the whole experience panned out. You can take steps to try to manage any nerves, and look to improve on anything that didn’t go right first time round.
Did you not prepare enough? Having experienced sitting a real paper, think about whether you learnt the right materials in sufficient detail. You’ve got plenty of time to plan a good learning and revision schedule for next time.
Were you just not ready? It’s tempting to sit as many exams as you can as early as possible. However, whilst exams sometimes don’t mirror real-life work, the on-the-job experience you gain day-to-day is valuable for your exams as well. And you’ll need that to be a well-rounded professional capable of advising client’s not only regarding technical details, but also on commercial and business-oriented matters. So, sometimes slower progress isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Q: How long do you have to wait before you can retake an exam?
The exams are held annually, so there is a bit of a wait but, on the plus side, there’s plenty of time to consider what went wrong last time, regroup, revise and get ready to sit it again. Make sure you’re aware of any registration deadlines and requirements.
Q: What are the chances of questions being repeated in the next exam?
It’s unlikely exactly the same question will be asked the following year. However if the law has changed, or even if a particular question was answered badly one year, a similar question on a similar topic could be set the year after. Key areas like patentability, infringement, and questions on deadlines will come up time and time again in various forms. So persevere and learn the core details, thoroughly. In addition, it’s not possible to cover the whole syllabus in one year’s paper, but the papers over a few years will most likely aim to. So, have a look and see what hasn’t been examined recently as that might be an indication that it could come up next time.
Q: How many times can you retake a patent exam?
There’s no limit, but it’s costly not just in terms of exam and revision course fees but also in time. As you progress through your career, you’ll no doubt get busier and fitting any exam preparation into work time (if permitted) will become harder. It also becomes harder to stick to good exam techniques as you get more used to giving real-life advice, such as when you get used to drafting the broader claims your client wants. So I would recommend sitting the exams when you’re ready, to maximise the chance of passing first or second time.
Q: What advice would you give someone who has failed an exam?
Really think about why it all went wrong. If possible look at your script and compare with the examiner’s comments and marking scheme. Ask a colleague or supervisor to review and provide feedback. Sometimes fundamental errors or flaws in understanding are hard to spot yourself. If you didn’t do so first time round, consider going on a revision course. Run-through past papers; look at the mark schemes and example candidate papers. Practice makes perfect, or at least gets you over the 50 per cent line!
Q: What tips can you give students to ensure that they are getting the most out of their study time?
Make use of existing resources. If colleagues have taken the same exam before, ask them what they did and if they have study notes. Alternatively you can look at books or texts (although do make sure it is the most up-to-date) for the exams you’re studying for.
Plan out a study schedule so you’re not cramming big or important topics in at the end just because you haven’t got round to them yet. Consider revision courses: you may well not need them for every exam, such as some of the UK Foundation level exams or all of the UK, European drafting, and amendment exams; but they will often supply good materials and resources you can use, so make sure you get booked in early.
Make sure you’re familiar with the (most up-to-date) syllabi and you know what’s expected in terms of how the exams will be run – check the front covers of past papers and the information available from PEB and the EPO.
Finally, do remember to practice past papers and check against the mark schemes or get a colleague or supervisor to take a look. The best preparation in the world won’t help if you’ve never practised an exam paper to time and you only find out on the day you can only finish half the paper.
Carrie Johnson is a former chief examiner for The Patent Examination Board, responsible for setting and marking the examination papers for the UK patent qualification and is currently a Patent Attorney and Partner at Barker Brettell.