Career Options: patent attorney

The first Career Spotlight kicked off the series with a blazing start by two patent attorneys talking about their work.  Here are some highlights about their jobs, decision-making, and getting into the sector:
Julie Carlisle came to patent work through a PhD, an unhappy project in Belgium and a post-doc at King’s.  Talking to friends, she saw that she could use science by working as an attorney and it wouldn’t involve being in a lab.

Claire Borton was shown an article by her dad about ‘Weird Careers’, when she was doing her A Levels: patent attorney was one of the careers listed!  She has done two degrees (natural sciences and engineering) and finds herself doing patent work mainly in telecoms.

What is patent work?

Like copyrighting (protecting what is written down) and trade marking (protecting brands), patents are a form of monopoly protecting, in this case protecting how things work.  Attorneys have to research, understand and explain the processes in order for them to win the legal right to a monopoly of the process for their clients.  Once the patent is submitted to the government’s Patent Office, the attorney’s role is then in defending the patent from the Patent Office’s attempts to find something equivalent. 

The work involves reading, thinking and writing.  They talk to the inventor, have technical discussions and then spend a lot of time coming up with an excellent, clear and unambiguous claim.  They digest technical and legal work (eg if the claim is said to have infringed another patent claim) and have to communicate to lay people (the clients) any issues or disagreements.

How do they work?

You can work in-house, for a client eg a pharm company, or in private practice where you would be instructed by a client.  There are a few sole trader, freelance attorneys. (Another angle would be to work for the Patent Office itself).  Hours tend to be fairly predictable – probably about 9.30-6pm; and deadlines are about two or three months away.  As you get more senior, more of the work would be business development – finding new clients.


You apply for a training contract with a firm – you’re paid whilst you train! – and are likely to spend a minimum of about three years training.  More often training would last about five years.  You are taking exams throughout this time and are likely to fail the first few!  The exams test your drafting and analysis skills; there may be some law-based exams but mainly it is on your technical skills.  You become UK qualified first and then progress, usually, to being European Patent Office-qualified. 

If, during training, you have more than one supervisor, this is deemed to be a good idea because then you have more than one person’s input into how your skills develop: there is never just one answer about how you draft a patent application!

The industry is regulated by CIPA.

Applications and skills required

You are advised to apply for as many firms as you can; they usually have a rolling programme of applications rather than a fixed timetable like law.  You are likely to have to complete a firm’s individual application form and submit a piece of writing (eg describing a pair of scissors: try it!  It’s harder than you think.)  Your cover letter is likely to be seen as evidence of your drafting ability.  Use short sharp sentences.  In an interview you would probably have to describe an object, or might be tested on synthesising several pieces of information about an object.

Skills  required include

  • general science knowledge and thinking
  • analysis, comprehension, expression
  • communication
  • time management
  • managing deadlines
  • language skills don’t particularly help, though Japanese or Chinese languages might be useful

Good luck!