Is a patent attorney a type of lawyer?
Yes. However, you do not need a law degree to become a patent attorney. Patent attorneys are a specialist type of lawyer monitored by their own regulator, IPReg. The role of a patent attorney involves advising clients on those areas of law applicable to intellectual property. Consequently, during training you will be required to develop a thorough understanding and knowledge of relevant acts and laws.
Is it necessary to study a science subject at university?
A degree in a science, engineering, technology or a mathematics based subject, or equivalent, from a recognised institution is strongly preferred. Most firms also require at least a 2:1 in a first degree. A science/engineering background is required to enable you to understand a client’s invention, even if it relates to subject matter you have not previously encountered. This mix between science/engineering and law is one of the aspects that make the role of a patent attorney such an interesting career.
For those looking to also qualify as a trade mark attorney, a thorough understanding of UK and EU trade mark law and practice is essential and knowledge of related law and practice overseas can be useful.
Do I need to have a PhD?
The level of understanding obtained through a PhD could be beneficial in some technical areas. However, the caseload of a patent attorney often varies and it is unusual for a patent attorney to be able to concentrate solely on one specific subject matter area unless they work in-house. Consequently, the benefit of a PhD could be limited in that it would only be of assistance to those cases falling within the narrow definition of the technical area of your PhD. Nonetheless, some private practice firms do require trainees to have a PhD.
How do you become a patent attorney?
The training occurs, for the most part, on-the-job and generally involves working for one or more fully qualified patent attorneys, and preparing for and sitting a series of examinations.
A degree in a science, engineering, technology or a mathematics based subject, or equivalent, from a recognised institution is strongly preferred.
The examinations include those set by the Patent Examination Board (PEB), which must be taken in order to become a registered (UK) patent attorney. This is a two-tier system involving Foundation Examinations and Final Examinations. Candidates must pass one of the Foundation Examinations before they are eligible to sit the Final Examinations.
University courses are available to obtain an exemption from some or all of the Foundation Examinations. Examinations are also set by the European Patent Office. These must be taken in order to become a European patent attorney.
In addition, since many patent attorneys also handle trade mark work, they may also benefit from becoming a registered trade mark attorney (a UK qualification) and a European trade mark attorney.
How long will it take me to qualify?
The examinations set by the PEB are held annually. Consequently, the minimum length of time to become a Chartered Patent Attorney is two years. However, in reality it often takes longer, particularly if it becomes necessary to retake any of the examinations. Typically, it takes 4–6 years to become a registered patent attorney. The examinations set by the European Patent Office are also held annually and require candidates to have worked for two years under the supervision of a European patent attorney before sitting the pre-examination and for three years under the supervision of a European patent attorney before sitting the main examinations. For this reason, it is common for people to become registered patent attorneys before becoming European patent attorneys.
Typically, it takes 4-6 years to become a registered patent attorney.
What other skills or qualifications are required?
A patent attorney must be able to communicate effectively with personnel at all levels within an organisation, as well as with people having varying levels of understanding about patents. Therefore, it is important to have good oral and written communication skills. One of the main skills of a patent attorney is to be able to understand an invention on the basis of discussions with an inventor and to then draft a detailed specification of the invention. This process requires an ability to identify the core features of an invention. English, French and German are the official languages of the European Patent Office and a working knowledge of French and/or German can be beneficial.
What kind of salary can I expect?
The salaries of patent attorneys compare well with those of other professions such as accountancy and law. Salaries tend to be relatively low initially, increasing gradually through training and increasing significantly following qualification.
How do I go about finding a job?
One way is to decide whether you would prefer to work in an industrial patents department or in a private firm of patent attorneys. You could then apply on a speculative basis to potential employers.
Depending on the subject you have studied at university, there may be certain companies to which you would be particularly suited and you could start off targeting those. You can use the search filters by ‘Area of Specialism’ as well as ‘Location’ on IP Careers’ website to help you find roles suited to your degree background.
Can I get work experience?
Work experience in the profession is rare, though some firms do offer internship programmes, keep and eye out for current insights and internships. It is a good idea to register your interest as soon as you have decided to join the profession. Due to the varied nature of the work, and the complications associated with client confidentiality, many firms believe that structured work experience programmes do not offer sufficient value to either candidates or the employers that organise them.
For most prospective employers, academic excellence is prized above work experience. If you would like to gain first-hand insight into the operations of patent firms and be able to demonstrate this experience on your CV, many recruiters host open days. You can find all our open days here.
Do firms recruit at particular times of year?
Vacancies for trainee patent attorneys tend to crop up as and when the need arises. However, many firms find that they have more potential candidates if they seek to recruit towards the end of the academic year, as final year university students are approaching the end of their courses. A number of firms hold interviews early in the academic year, for vacancies to be filled during the following autumn. In general, it is often a good idea to register your interest as soon as you have decided to join the profession.