‘Wo ist der Hauptbahnhof, bitte?’ was the first question I asked as I struggled with suitcases full of clothing and books at Franz Josef International Airport in Munich. A chance to spend six months working in Munich, centre of the European patent system, awaited me…
Rewind to academia
In the final year of my degree, and with the need to find a job fast approaching, I attended a number of Careers Service organised lectures on job opportunities for an engineering graduate. One lecture which stood out was about becoming a patent attorney – it appeared this could be the career that would enable me to connect the areas of importance to me: the in-depth knowledge I had gained via my engineering studies, the use of my analytical skills, and my desire for a continual stream of new information to keep my interest engaged. I duly read the Inside Careers guide to learn more about the patent profession.
Generally, I found the initial applications for patent attorney jobs much simpler than for jobs in other sectors; rather than complicated online forms and case studies, I was required to provide only a CV and covering letter.
Interviews followed, requiring the demonstration of technical knowledge and the ability to explain abstract and technical concepts in a clear and logical way. I was lucky to be offered a trainee position in Hoffmann · Eitle’s London office, joining in September 2009.
As with any new job, I found aspects challenging at first. Despite spending a day studying an invention and understanding it in perfect detail, it could be difficult to get ideas down on paper in a clear and persuasive manner – it’s a different style to writing up a lab report.
My first 12 months were spent working on real cases, learning about the patent system, what to look out for and how to prepare good letters to the patent office and clients. One year in, Hoffmann · Eitle sponsored me to attend Queen Mary University in London to complete a three month course on intellectual property (IP). This intensive course is essentially a primer for the British legal system but with an IP focus.
With the exams associated with that course out of the way, it was back to the job to continue more in-depth training as my knowledge of the law and my practical experience steadily increased.
Hard work and beer gardens…
One of the biggest draws, for me, of Hoffmann · Eitle was the opportunity to work in our Munich office. Munich is the centre of the European patent system, a beautiful city and a great place to live.
After the Queen Mary course, I lived and worked in Munich for six months in our (very large) head office, where – fortunately – almost everyone speaks fluent English. The experience broadened my exposure to the diverse IP work performed by Hoffmann · Eitle. It also meant that I was able to interact with our Electronics and IT division in Munich where I made some firm friends.
Back in the London office, I continue to work for some of the partners in Munich and as a result, I am exposed to an even greater variety of work.
Another advantage of working in Munich is the proximity to the European Patent Office, where I regularly attended hearings (miniature courts) with Munich partners. These are normally exciting cases as some hearings are particularly hard fought. Preparation is key, as you need to be able to discuss the relevant technology in a very high level of detail in order to represent your client’s interests.
Hearings result in either allowance or rejection of an application, the decision being announced at the conclusion of the hearing, thereby avoiding any protracted wait for the outcome.
Since I had a certain amount of flexibility with my hours, I was able to take full advantage of working in Munich to visit the many beer gardens and the (in)famous Oktoberfest, as well as exploring the State of Bavaria – a great way to spend six months!
Path to qualification
Two sets of exams need to be passed to become a patent attorney – British and European. If both sets are passed, then you’re both European and British qualified and able to represent clients before both the UK and European Patent Offices.
Since most of my work concerns European patent applications, for me, the European qualification is the more important and I have taken the exams to become European qualified (presently awaiting the results). Most patent attorney firms expect you to also obtain a national qualification, so my next target is the British exams.
Most of the knowledge needed for these exams is absorbed on the job. Intensive periods of study are also required in the months preceding the exams to supplement this knowledge. Also, most patent attorney firms will pay for training courses or provide in-house seminars to help with the exams.
A day in the life
Currently, my average day is spent working on two or three files, looking at the patent application documents, and trying to convince a patent examiner that the invention is worth a patent. Generally this involves explaining the important differences between the application and any known existing technologies – this is not dissimilar to playing ‘spot the difference’ (although obviously with much more importance attached).
I will draft a letter to our client explaining what I think needs to be done to secure allowance. I will typically then discuss the case with the supervising partner to see what they think of my approach – if they don’t like an argument, I have to try to convince them otherwise! As a trainee, all of my work is supervised but as I gain in experience and confidence, the level of supervision is decreasing until eventually I will be managing my own work.
Engineering friends have the perception that the content of my job is dull as it’s not ‘hands-on’. However they are often surprised when something patent-related hits the news and I am able to explain to them the exact technologies and arguments behind a case (e.g. the recent Apple/Samsung cases).
Like any specialist job, you don’t understand its full scope until you are actually doing it; the calibre of Hoffmann · Eitle’s clients means that I work with inventions at the forefront of technologies that interest me, and whilst a patent application can be for a small improvement to an existing technology, the impact of that particular change can have far wider implications.
With a reasonable amount of freedom to choose how to manage my day (subject to deadlines), I can select which technologies I work on, which keeps things fresh and interesting. Sometimes I’ll have urgent work, such as when a client provides instructions on the last day before a patent office deadline. In these cases, I have to drop everything and focus on that one case to get it finished by the end of the day.
Overall, I have a good work/life balance and I derive a great deal of satisfaction from meeting the challenges presented to me by my chosen career.