I took a very ‘non-standard’ route into the profession and, along the way, learnt that persistence pays off in the end.
Despite having a PhD and years of experience in an industrial setting, I found that my CV often ended up at the top of the reject pile at many private practice firms. This might have been because my early education (i.e. A-Levels and the like) wasn’t proving stellar enough for a profession where consistently high academic achievement can be a prerequisite.
As frustrating as I found this, I also totally understood. The profession is small and super competitive. Firms need ways to whittle down the enormous list of high-quality applications which they receive each year. I just found myself needing to be a bit creative to bolster my CV. So…
– I read everything I could about being a patent attorney, including this very guide!
– I was fortunate enough to get a place on the excellent Work Placement Programme at Appleyard Lees and, to this day, remain very grateful to them for that opportunity (other such placement schemes exist and are well worth exploring).
– I decided to fund myself through the PG Certificate in Intellectual Property Law at Brunel University and, in doing so, became exempt from the UK Foundation Level Examinations.
– I pestered friends of mine who were already trainees for application tips and advice for interviews.
After a while, I started to get more interviews and was absolutely thrilled to be offered my current role. Hence my lesson to anyone out there who might not have been successful on their first go is…don’t give up!
Why was I attracted to a job as a patent attorney?
I wasn’t enjoying life in the lab after my PhD. My experiments weren’t working, my motivation was low, and I found myself eager for a new challenge. When I learnt of the profession through a friend who was already a trainee, I knew straight away the job was for me. Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry, I already knew a little bit about the importance of Intellectual Property (IP) to companies who conduct research. But on the softer side of things, many of the skills which a patent attorney requires really resonated with me.
For example, I have always enjoyed learning about interesting new science. I liked looking at data, reading scientific literature and writing (I even quite enjoyed writing my PhD thesis)! I also enjoyed working with other scientists, being collaborative and problem solving. The role of a patent attorney encompasses all these aspects. You also need to be meticulous, have a strong eye for detail and be able to hit deadlines.
Being a patent attorney gives you the unique opportunity to see, and contribute to, the business/commercial goals of your client, whilst at the same time keeping abreast with developments in both the law and at the lab bench. It offers STEM graduates the chance to develop a new legal skill set and provides a varied and intellectually-stimulating workload. It’s a great job!
What was the application process like?
The initial stage of the application process involved submitting a CV and cover letter. My advice is to double and triple check your applications for any errors. Patent attorneys will spot them!
I then had three face-to-face interviews:
Firstly, I had a competency-based interview that explored why I wanted to be a patent attorney, what skills I had which would make me a good one and (completely out of left-field), how an airplane stays in the air! This question tested my ability to think logically about subject-matter out of my expertise, whilst under pressure.
Secondly, I had a technical interview where I was asked to complete some basic reading/writing exercises. I was also asked to verbally describe the key features of some simple objects. My advice with these tasks is to try and just relax and enjoy them. I also recommend you keep your descriptions succinct i.e. what features of the object are absolutely essential for it to function?
Finally, I met with our Head of Patents where the focus was on determining whether I’d fit into the culture of the department. This is an important consideration that employers do take into account. That said, be sure to also ask yourself the question “do I see myself fitting in here”? Remember that interviews are two-way streets. Also remember to ask what support they provide for their trainees because the learning curve can be steep, especially when you first join.
What are my main duties?
I support GSK’s Vaccines organisation and therefore spend lots of my time drafting and prosecuting patent applications relating to antigens, adjuvants, peptides, compositions and so forth.
I also spend a significant amount of time working on contentious issues, most notably preparing written submissions before the Opposition Division at the EPO. I have also recently been lucky enough to support some IP litigation, where GSK’s patents were being challenged by third parties.
Another aspect of my role (that may differ to those working in private practice) is educating the business on sound IP practices. You quickly learn that scientists love to publish, so ensuring that inventions are captured in a patent application ahead of publication is vital. In-house attorneys also have lots of agreement work to balance (e.g. confidentiality agreements, material transfer agreements etc) and it is vital to ensure that the terms in these contracts address who owns any arising IP.
Finally, like all trainees, I spend a significant amount of time preparing for examinations and participating in training courses and seminars. No sugar coating here – revision is demanding and the exams are hard. That said, it won’t last forever and there is lots of support available from attorneys who have been there, done that and got the t-shirt!