After 15 years in the business Elizabeth has turned full circle. From the week’s work experience that first attracted her to the profession, to becoming Partner at the very same firm – with a minor detour to set up her own IP consultancy company.
Why did you decide to be a patent attorney?
What really inspires me about science is the practical application of scientific knowledge within the context of the real world. I have always been interested in new technology products, electronic gadgets and clever widgets. In my final year of studying physics at Bristol University (at a time when I hadn’t even contemplated owning my own mobile phone) I thought I wanted to become a patent attorney because my favourite shop was The Gadget Shop. And after necessarily completing the practical modules of my degree, the idea of being a lawyer was much more appealing than being a bench scientist.
How did you get into the profession?
I knew about patents and the subject of intellectual property because my father was a scientist and had patented several inventions. The summer after I graduated I was lucky enough to secure a week’s work experience at a law firm specialising in intellectual property. The firm was called Haseltine Lake Kempner. During my work experience I formed a positive impression about what being a patent attorney involves. I wasn’t put off by the solitary nature of the job – it’s true that a large part of the day is spent reading technical documents and writing letters of advice to clients. However, I had always liked to work independently. I also saw that whilst the attorneys tended to do their casework on their own, the office as a whole had a sociable environment and there was nonetheless, sense of a ‘team spirit’.
In the September after graduation I took up employment as a patent examiner in the Electrical Division of the United Kingdom Patent Office. This was a good introduction to the profession and I received some excellent early training. I started to get used to assessing difficult technical concepts and I began to feel confident that my physics degree gave me the acumen I needed to understand a broad spectrum of different inventions. Six months into the job and I was approached by Haseltine Lake Kempner offering me a position to train as a patent attorney in their London office. I accepted immediately.
How do you train to be a patent attorney?
Training to be a patent attorney in an intellectual property law firm involves sitting exams to become qualified as both a Chartered UK Patent Attorney and a European Patent Attorney. The UK qualification involves two stages of exams – foundation level exams and finals. The exams are demanding and very different to the sort of ‘right or wrong’ exams science graduates are used to. However, the standard of training available within many of the private practice firms is extremely high. Graduates in training tend to receive a lot of support and encouragement from their employers and peers.
Passing the qualifying exams is only half the story. From your first day in the profession you begin to work on real cases under the supervision of a senior attorney who is responsible for your training. In this way you learn the actual skills that you will need for the job. What I enjoyed most of all in my early career was learning how to interface with the firm’s clients. Right from the start I worked for clients ranging from lone inventors to commercial directors and university professors. It was incredibly satisfying to understand a client’s core technology and to begin to appreciate their business and commercial objectives. For me, forming good client relationships is still one of the most satisfying aspects of the job.
It took me almost five years to become dual-qualified and to finally have all the exams under my belt. Qualification brings, not just a prestigious and hard-earned title, but also a significant increase in your salary.
What else do you enjoy about your role?
I love to write. Explaining difficult concepts in simple terms to a client, crafting a patent specification for a new invention from scratch – these are immensely satisfying tasks. Being able to write clearly is one of the most crucial skills required of a good patent attorney. Writing is the key aspect of the job that I enjoy the most.
Current position and employment history
I have recently become a partner at Haseltine Lake Kempner – the place of my work experience and training all those years ago. However, my career path hasn’t been entirely predicable. In 2009 I left the firm to start a family and I set up my own IP consultancy company that provided IP advice to start-up technology companies. Working my own hours and being my own boss gave me all the flexibility I needed whilst my children (Evvie aged five and Samuel aged three) were still very young. I increasingly hear of patent attorneys, especially women in the profession, who are making the most of the value inherent in their qualifications and expertise to work a less conventional schedule.
Thankfully, whilst running my own small business, I never lost my connection to Haseltine Lake Kempner and the colleagues who had become friends. I was only too happy to return to work for the firm in 2014, and I and am proud to now be joining the Partnership.