Lee Chapman has been with patent firm J A Kemp for 12 years. He shares his thoughts and advice on each of the profession’s principal elements: the science, the business and the law.
I really enjoyed my time at university studying scientific papers and planning and performing experiments in a laboratory, but I did not want to spend the rest of my life in scientific research. I wanted to find a career that allowed me not only to keep up with the cutting edge of science, but also to broaden my business horizons. I found such a career as a patent attorney.
Patents are a healthy mix of science, law and business. My career is intellectually stimulating because it requires careful reasoning, constructive arguing and clarity of thought. It also requires me to communicate clearly in both written and oral forms.
Why did you choose a career in this profession?
I have to admit that the career chose me rather than the other way round. I ended up where I am more through luck than judgement. Following my degree in Physiological Sciences and DPhil in Endocrinology (both from the University of Oxford), I considered and applied for various jobs including editing science journals and improving the public perception of science. My first interview was with J A Kemp. Since they offered me a job in 2002, I have never looked back. I qualified as a patent attorney in 2005 (which is about the average amount of time needed) and became a Partner in 2011.
What is a typical day like for you?
Patent attorneys do spend a lot of time at their desks. Most days involve lots of reading, thinking and writing (although I tend to dictate letters for my secretary to type). But that is not to say that we patent attorneys never get to meet other people. I have frequent meetings with scientists (inventors), technology transfer managers, clients (ranging from entrepreneurs to people in big industrial companies), prospective clients and of course colleagues.
It is common for teams of two or more patent attorneys to collaborate on complex and/or important projects. As I have progressed within J A Kemp, I have taken a more active role in business development and often present at seminars or conferences and travel to meet (new) clients.
What do you like most about your job?
The best thing about my job is the variety of challenges it provides. I often have a limited amount of time to consider and understand very complex technologies, which are not necessarily part of my core technical expertise. Patent attorneys of course deal with the forefront of technological innovation! Having understood what is going on, I then have to describe the technology in a manner that will allow my client to get a patent in many countries around the world, or argue why it should be patentable with a patent examiner.
I really enjoy meeting with scientists, whose enthusiasm for their work is infectious. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is helping small companies to grow and prosper. A patent attorney must be in a position to give basic advice about various aspects of commercial strategy.
I am happy to say that I get to travel the world with my job. I visit the USA roughly once a year. Our patent attorneys are frequent visitors to the USA and Japan in particular, but also regularly visit half a dozen other key markets. Many clients are from overseas. For instance, US companies wanting European or UK patents will need to enlist the services of a European or UK patent attorney (we are all dual qualified at J A Kemp). My travel gives me the opportunity to cement my relationships with existing clients and find new ones.
What would you like to achieve in the future?
I would like to progress within the partnership, increase my stake in the business and participate even more in the way the firm is run. I would like to continue to serve my clients and be involved in more high profile and interesting cases. I would also like to continue to train young attorneys and watch them flourish in their careers.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into the profession?
The first thing to consider is whether or not you are cut out for life as a patent attorney. You must be comfortable with working on your own for quite a lot of the time.
It is essential to have a strong science background, but that is not enough. You have to be willing to expand your horizons. I have a Doctorate in Endocrinology, but rarely use it day-to-day. I have expanded my knowledge base to include next generation DNA sequencing, stem cells, therapeutic cloning, antibodies, genomics, multiplex assays and diagnostics.
It is also important to have a strong grasp of the English language. Patent attorneys are wordsmiths and advocates as well as scientists. It is essential to be able to describe complex things in a simple way.
As one might expect, the job involves a lot of patent law and patent case law. It is important to ask yourself whether or not this will interest you. Coming from a science background, the legal aspects of the job can be hard to get used to. There is rarely a right answer. The ‘answer’ often depends upon which legal arguments are most persuasive.
Another important consideration is whether you join a private practice firm, like J A Kemp, or go into industry. Many technology companies employ patent attorneys and many of the large ones take on graduate trainees. The demands and rewards of the job differ between the two environments. Some people switch back and forth between the two. Private practice generally provides a more flexible and entrepreneurial environment with a greater range of technologies for you to get to grips with.
If you are serious about a career as a patent attorney, the best advice I can give is to get your foot in the door and to get qualified. A qualified patent attorney will have a myriad of opportunities to explore. Good luck!