• Name: Alex Burns
  • Job Title: Associate Patent Attorney
  • Location: London
  • University: Cambridge
  • Degree: Natural Sciences (Experimental and Theoretical Physics)
  • Areas of Specialism: Physics

How did you get your job at Mewburn Ellis?

During my fourth year studying Natural Sciences (specialising in physics) at Cambridge, I realised that neither a PhD nor a job in research suited me. By chance, a friend studying law forwarded me an email from the University Careers Service about a talk on careers in IP, so not knowing what I wanted to do after I graduated, I went along to the talk.  There, I was interested to stumble upon a career which would allow me to use the things I had learned on my degree without becoming too bogged down in one very niche area of physics. So, over the Christmas holidays, I sent off applications to several firms, and after two interviews at Mewburn Ellis, I was offered a job as a trainee patent attorney.

What was the application process like – any advice?

Unlike many other jobs, the application process for becoming a patent attorney is almost entirely technical.  The initial application requires you to be able to showcase your ability to write about technical things in a clear and concise manner, and this is tested further at interview.  From my own experience, interviews focus largely on discussions of various kinds of technology (many of which you will be unfamiliar with), with very little discussion of “softer” topics.  Like university interviews, when interviewing for a job as a patent attorney, you are being tested on the way you think and your ability to describe and explain things, rather than your ability to know the answers.  If you are able to come up with an answer straight away, then more often than not, you will be pushed and pushed until you don’t know the answer – this is your chance to shine, as your problem-solving skills with then be put to the test.  Since becoming fully-qualified, I have had the opportunity to sit on “the other side of the desk” in a number of interviews, and can therefore attest to all of the above.

The two main pieces of advice I have about the application process are (i) think about (and even practise explaining) how things work, from simple household objects to more complicated devices or processes with which you are familiar, and (ii) be prepared – if you have written about anything in your CV or cover letter, make sure you know it inside-out, because the chances are, you will be quizzed about it in a lot of detail.

What are your main duties/roles?

I passed my European Qualifying Exams in July 2018, and became a fully-qualified (i.e. UK and European) patent attorney.  However, the transition from trainee to qualified attorney is by no means a cliff-edge.  There are some immediate changes (e.g. the ability to send things in your own name, the change in job title, and of course, salary) but it is mostly a smooth transition over many months, or even years.  As an associate, my role is to focus on attorney work and to manage cases.  This includes: preparing patent applications from scratch, writing letters to patent offices arguing that an invention is new and inventive, advising clients on strategy, and determining whether a client is free to sell their own product or whether they will be infringing someone else’s patent.  My role also often involves “opposing” someone else’s patent, i.e. arguing that it is invalid and that it should therefore be revoked.  Since qualifying, I have had an increasing amount of responsibility for various cases, meaning that my work now usually goes out without having been checked by my mentor, or another colleague – but this does not mean that I now work fully independently.  We are still able, and indeed very much encouraged to ask our mentors or other colleagues questions, e.g. when we have a tricky situation with a client, or on a very important piece of work, and even just for a second opinion.  At Mewburn Ellis, this collaborative working environment is very important.

Now that I am qualified, I am also able to pass work to trainees, and to help out with training.  This can either involve going through work with them, or giving tutorials on various topics.  This is a particularly rewarding aspect of the job.

Is it a 9 to 5 job?

In short, yes.  Inevitably, there are busy periods and less busy periods which may mean that you have to work longer hours than usual, but unlike many professions, working unsociable hours is actively discouraged.  In my experience, if someone is constantly having to work long hours, then firms will aim to alleviate this, e.g. by adjusting that person’s workload.  This allows that person to maintain a work-life balance, and also ensures that the quality of their work does not decrease.

What would you like to achieve in the future?

As an associate, I am always working towards a position in which I work fully-independently.  At Mewburn Ellis, the next step for me will be to become a Senior Associate.  Then it is possible to become either a Partner, or a Director.  These are both high-level roles in which I would work fully independently.  The Director role is focused more on “fee-earning”, substantive work, whereas the Partner role includes additional responsibilities such as recruitment, training, and business development.  At the moment, I think that the Partner role is more appealing to me, but nothing is set in stone!

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into the industry?

On a practical level, I would recommend learning as much about the profession as possible, and to make sure that this is the right career path for you.  But, my main advice would be to take an interest in the technology around you, ask yourself how things work, and why they’re clever.  This sort of mind set is invaluable when working as patent attorney.

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