What is a Patent Attorney?
A patent attorney helps to advise clients on all aspects of patent law, and sometimes on other areas of intellectual property such as design law, trade secrets, and agreements for example. In the Life Sciences sector, patent attorneys work with clients which vary greatly from SMEs and spin-outs up to multinational companies, often including research institutions such as universities. This means that much of the job is spent communicating with frontline scientists carrying out cutting research either in industry or in academia, making the job fast-paced and intellectually stimulating. The types of inventions you may work on in this field are very diverse, for example: antibody therapeutics, genetically modified plants, diagnostic tests for cancer, sequencing technology, CRISPR-Cas gene editing systems, bacterial fermentation for food or chemical production, tissue models, expression constructs, and microbiome cultures.
What does the job involve?
Typical day to day tasks for a patent attorney in this field will include: analysing literature and other patent documents to determine if prospective inventions are patentable, meeting with inventors to understand inventions and drafting patent applications to protect new inventions, devising filing strategies that are most appropriate to your client’s needs taking into account key territories for patent protection and costs, preparing arguments for patent offices around the world to try to achieve grant of your client’s patent applications, performing freedom to operate or landscaping searches and opinions to help your clients look for any relevant competitor patents and assess the risk of infringement, preparing challenges to competitor patents sometimes including attending oral hearings before the patent office, much like mini court cases. Each of these tasks is quite different and you may be doing any one or more of these tasks in a given day. This keeps the job interesting, and allows you to use a wide variety of knowledge spanning across language, law and science.
Other parts of the job typically include contributing to marketing by writing articles on legal updates in IP, giving talks, or attending events to meet prospective clients, sometimes these can be abroad and there are often opportunities for international travel. As you move up in the profession, training more junior attorneys also becomes part of the job, as well as managing the running of a law firm as a business, should that be of interest to you.
What skills are required?
Being a patent attorney requires a unique combination of skills. Being able to communicate clearly with different audiences having different levels of understanding of patents is key, therefore a high standard of English in written communications but also the ability to orally communicate in an effective manner is needed. Any experience with writing or language qualifications are desirable. Excellent academic qualifications are usually expected due to the nature of needing to grasp complex concepts quickly. In the Life Sciences field new trainees typically have not only a 2:1 or 1st class degree but also a masters or PhD in a relevant biological subject, and sometimes also postgraduate experience. Further commercial experience from working in a company setting, especially if it involved IP or patents is useful. In general, having a logical analytical mindset, attention to detail and being very well organised are essential skills.
What is the route to entry?
The best route into becoming a patent attorney is to look for trainee positions which may be advertised online by IP Careers, the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA), on individual firm/company websites, on LinkedIn or on university careers websites. You can view the graduate vacancies here.
It is usually best to apply for a trainee position within the specialism that matches your academic qualifications, in this case look for those that say ‘life sciences’ or ‘biotechnology’ in the job title or description. There are many firms who now offer open days, graduate recruitment days, or even work experience so keep an eye out for those in the year before you intend to apply. These can be very useful ways to find out more and meet patent attorneys at different firms, as well as get you noticed if you do eventually apply there. You can start your search for an open day here.
In terms of applying for trainee positions, typically the only requirements are a covering letter and a CV. If you are invited to interview however, these may be quite long and include tasks designed to see if you would be capable of doing the day to day job. For example you may be asked to draft a claim covering a simple invention, asked to perform a grammar test, or even a critical thinking test. Trainee positions are typically sought after and attract many applicants so it is advisable to apply to many different firms and to be open minded about where you may begin your career. It is often much easier to move between firms once you are in the profession.
Of course once you begin your career as a trainee, you must bear in mind the exams that need to be passed to qualify as a UK and European patent attorney. There are several different sets of exams totalling between 10-15 in number depending on route to qualification over the period of around 3 to 4 years. For more information on how to become qualified, read the ‘Professional Qualifications & Training’ article here. These exams are notoriously difficult and re-sitting is common. However, if you can get through this part, the advantages of the job are numerous, it is challenging, exciting and varied with a clearly defined career path which offers more stability and security than many career choices for graduates from the sciences.