The work of a patent attorney requires certain key skills. Prospective employers will look for evidence of these skills – or at least the potential to acquire them – in your CV and personal statement.
The technical ability that goes hand in hand with a science or engineering background enables graduates to understand how a client’s invention works – the most basic prerequisite for becoming a patent attorney. For this reason alone it is very difficult to enter the profession without a degree in a STEM subject; however there are many other skills developed by science/engineering subjects that translate readily into the intellectual property profession.
1. Communication skills
A patent attorney’s work relies on good communication skills, both written and oral. You will need to be proficient at using words to define and describe; to explain and advise; to instruct and to question; and to persuade. You will have to communicate with scientists and engineers; business people; other lawyers; and tribunals such as courts and patent offices. You will have a thoughtful approach to words and language.
This variety is what makes the job so enjoyable, but it also demands a versatile communication style. You are, in effect, an interpreter between three worlds – technology, business and law – and you need to speak the language of each.
Of course, communication is a two-way process, so you must also be good at reading other people and at learning from what you hear. Good people skills able you to deal with clients and explain complex technical and legal ideas to them.
You will be expected to develop more effective communication techniques throughout your career. But you should at least have a reasonable degree of skill from the start, and an enthusiasm for communicating. Expect employers to test for this with both written exercises and interview questions.
2. The ability to work alone
Particularly in private practice, a patent attorney works alone rather than as part of a team. You will therefore need to be able to manage your own workload, motivate yourself to complete tasks on time and be sufficiently self-critical to quality assess your output. Right from day one, you will have to conduct private research and study, whether for your day to day work or to get you through the qualifying exams.
If you are not keen on long periods alone, analysing and writing documents; if you would rather not spend the rest of your life poring over textbooks, legal documents, scientific papers and of course patents, then you should probably not become a patent attorney.
3. Analytical skills
Patent attorneys have to analyse large amounts of information and reach logical, well-reasoned conclusions. You will need to be clear-thinking and rigorous in your analyses, critical of data and evidence, comprehensive in your approach. You will need to get to grips with both the details of a situation and its ‘big picture’ implications, processing legal and commercial information as well as scientific.
4. An eye for detail
In this job, details matter; accuracy is essential. You really do have to care about getting exactly the right word, phrase or definition; one that’s precise, apt, exhaustive, unambiguous and indisputable. Start with your CV.
If you find details tedious, or if inaccuracies slip into your work despite your good intentions, then this is not the job for you.
5. Lateral thinking
Patent attorneys have to be almost as creative as the inventors they work with. They will have an ability to focus on the detail as well as being able to see the bigger picture. Are there alternative ways of protecting this technology? What will competitors do to avoid our patent? Is there another way of interpreting this document? How can we get round this legal problem? Should I look at this situation from another angle?
6. Time and stress management
You will have several pieces of work on the go at once, possibly for different clients and in different technical fields. Some will be urgent, some not; some large, some small; some complex and others relatively easy. New instructions or queries could arrive at any time. And all of this work will carry deadlines, whether legal deadlines or commercial ones driven by your clients’ business needs.
As a patent attorney you will need to be organised. You will have to work quickly, but without loss of accuracy. You must learn to prioritise your case load, to delegate where appropriate and to manage your time efficiently so that all of your tasks get due attention and within the right time-frame.
How do you cope under pressure? Can you maintain the quality of your output even as the work piles on? Can you recognise the signs of stress and take evasive action? Some people are inherently more susceptible to stress than others, and their work more likely to suffer as a result. If that applies to you, a career-long battle against stress could make you very unhappy.
If you are thinking of becoming a patent attorney, ask yourself whether you feel comfortable in the areas described above. Ultimately, only you will know whether you have the necessary skill-set, or the inclination to acquire it.