Finding his way into the profession via a careers brochure at university, Nick is looking to pass on his advice to the next generation of prospective patent attorneys. He discusses the challenges, international dimension and rapid developments of the profession.
Why I chose the patent profession
I became a patent attorney in private practice by happy accident. As far as I know, very few people dream of being a patent attorney when they grow up, and I was certainly no exception. I studied physics at university because I enjoyed the range of subjects on offer and it seemed a good way of keeping my career options open. The problem with successfully keeping my options open, of course, was that as I was getting ready to leave education I still had very little idea of what I wanted to do. Mercifully, I was saved by a careers brochure in the physics department, directing me to look into the role of a patent attorney. A trip to the university careers department, a bit of asking around, and a work placement at a firm of patent attorneys, convinced me that a career would suit me well. Twenty letters to firms, five replies with interviews, two offers, and fifteen or so years later, and here I am.
What always looked good about the profession was that it offered a way of using my degree in an environment that also touched upon wider economic, commercial, and legal issues. I still find the breadth of my job very satisfying in this respect. Many of the degree subjects I enjoyed turned out to be the more theoretical subjects, involving abstract problem solving and expression of an answer in written or spoken form. These skills never go out of style. I was never much one for taking radios apart (often quoted as indicating a predisposition to being a patent attorney), but did like picturing how electromagnetic waves from the radio might be carrying the signal.
The challenges of the job and the business
Of course, not every day in the office exposes me to exciting new developments in technology, law and commerce. But even then, the intellectual challenges of the job keep me engaged. There is a quote by Scott Turow, a lawyer and author, in which he describes what he enjoys about the legal profession. Patent attorneys are not lawyers, but for me his quote sums up the attraction of the average day. He says: ‘I found practice, for the most part, a kick. There are finite tasks to be accomplished, that require intellectual sophistication, a quick grasp of facts, and diverse personal skills – guile, judgement, persuasiveness, and the ability to project the force of personality.’ Of course, if that is the attraction, it can also be the source of frustration when things are not running smoothly. Any number of times, I have come into the office with a plan of what I want to do, only to find that by 10 o’clock I am well off plan, with no chance of ever getting back on.
My current role
Much of my office work is that of a regular patent attorney, involving correspondence and telephone calls with clients and patent office examiners setting out the relevant legal and technical arguments. Often, I will be writing a new patent application, supervising a trainee writing one, preparing an opposition, or advising on patent validity and infringement issues. As a partner, business development and client care also take up more and more of my time. The clients we work for generally require more than just the completion of individual pieces of work, such as a sense of a developing relationship and the formulation of a strategy that will last at least a number of years. This requires the constant acquisition of up-to-date information about developments in patent law and client issues so that I have the tools needed to advise.
As well as meeting the demands of existing clients, it is part of my job to bring in new clients and continue to contribute to activities that preserve our firm’s wider profile and reputation in the industry. This involves attending conferences, making business trips, writing pitches, and contributing to the firm’s publications and publicity material.
What I enjoy most about the profession
I am lucky to work closely with a number of international clients, particularly in Japan, Europe and the US. In doing so, I enjoy the opportunity to look at problems from a different perspective to my own. Where British and US clients might want a succinct answer to a specific problem, Japanese clients will often want a great deal more background information, so that the next time the problem arises they will have some relevant information already on hand. The presentation styles and nature of investigation are often very different for different clients. I had a gap year in Japan before joining the profession, and am fortunate now that my role allows me to travel to Japan frequently and meet up with clients. Developing our Japanese and Far East client base further is one of my goals.
The patent profession is at a very interesting stage at present, and the rate of change in the status quo appears to be accelerating. In legal terms, there is an increasing amount of internationalisation and harmonisation between intellectual property systems in different countries, and as a result an increasing amount of information to absorb. Additionally, modern electronic media and electronic means of communication have resulted in shorter delivery times for work, and greater opportunities for reaching a wider audience.
I particularly enjoy working on the firm’s electronic publications and client presentations and briefing notes. Absorbing complicated information and breaking it down into a more easily understood form is rewarding, and I find that all of the written work I do, despite being tightly confined within the requirements of the profession, gives me a sense of fulfilling some creative need. That A level in English has turned out to be useful after all!
The skills to succeed
If you want to get ahead in the patent profession, you have to be able to do some of the things Scott Turow mentions above. You have to be able to project the force of personality – being confident and assertive when required – but also be a human being and not just a nerd (all patent attorneys are, in a good way I hope, nerds to some extent). Guile is needed to solve problems, and judgement is needed to know when you might need help. Persuasiveness is a must so that once you think you have solved the problem, you are able to convince others – patent office examiners and partners in the office for example – that you just might be right. Lastly, mental agility is needed to juggle tight deadlines and client expectations in a blizzard of emails, tweets, and phone calls. Often it feels like you have to spin and pirouette all day just to avoid going backwards. Of course, that is part of the fun too.