Career Spotlight: Patent Attorney

We’ve written up spotlights about being a Patent Attorney before – use the search function in the blog to find info from the past two years.  This year’s spotlight had four attorneys who spanned a range of experiences.  Here, briefly, are some notes of information that particularly stood out (see particularly the good and bad reasons for wanting to be an attorney, right at the end of the post!).

Nick Noble from Kilburn Strode:

KCL PhD and post-doc at Imperial, Nick took out a patent when he was doing his PhD.  He says that the kinds of people likely to be interested in being an attorney are those with

  • an interest in law
  • people who are ‘picky and pedantic’ ‘odd alls’
  • people who get a buzz out of an argument

Nick particularly talked about the different flavours to firms – some are interested in extremely high quality work; some more interested in revenue.  Some are friendly and sociable, others more interested in the money.

He revealed salary information: a trainee would start at £25-30k; after about five years, you are on £50-60K; 5 years post-qualification you would be on £85k and after about 12 years, £100k.  Those at the top of the profession might be earning £700 000.

Eleanor MacIver, Mewburn Ellis:

Eleanor is a trainee attorney, with a PhD and two post-docs in chemistry.  She moved into attorney work because she didn’t want to do benchwork any more.

She described a patent as a bargain between the inventor and the public: you get a 20 year monopoly on the enforcement and exploitation rights to your invention in return for disclosing it to help the public learn.

She expects to qualify within four years; future career moves include moving in-house to a pharma company (as well as moving up within your firm).

Eleanor gave this advice about applications:

  • You need to want to learn more about science and technology
  • Your writing needs to be clear and concise
  • You should apply everywhere!
  • You will fail your written exams – this might be the first time you’ve ever failed at anything.

Jodie Albutt, Dehns:

Jodie’s PhD came from St Thomas’s and she says that she moved into patent work because she wanted a stable job not based on short-term contracts or publication record.  She applied to 60 firms, had 6 interviews and 2 offers.  She has been at Dehns for 14 years.

Jodie’s advice included:

  • send speculative applications (ie apply to firms even if they’re not advertising for trainees)
  • you can sometimes find in-house trainee roles
  • in her experience biotech divisions need people with PhDs but a post-doc isn’t necessary
  • check out the training offered by the firms – some firms require you to take the foundation course on your own but elsewhere they sponsor you through it one day per week or for three months (the course is at QMUL).
  • check the size of the firms – numbers of staff and trainees (Dehns is one of the largest with 70 professional staff and lots of trainees)
  • EPO (European Patent Office) has a website where you can check a register of attorneys and see the clients they work for (which would be useful to know to help inform your application letter and to help you understand what kind of firm it is)
  • check the Legal 500 to see what ‘tier’ the firm is – working for a top tier firm as a trainee might look good for your future
  • check benefits – pay, benefits (inc holiday or flexible hours), bonus (based on profits or targets)

Re interviews:

You might be asked to describe a pencil or a problem, but you wouldn’t be expected to have knowledge of patent law.  You have to be able to understand what is commercially important for your client.

‘There aren’t that many unhappy patent lawyers’!!

Some of the tricky parts of the job:

  • you have to be able to accept someone destroying your work and getting you to do it again.
  • you need to be very organised: she has 250 active cases (though some she might look at only once per year)
  • there are a lot of emails – it’s a very office-based role though you may go to Munich to defend your patent at the EPO

John Fisher, Carpmaels and Ransford

‘It’s an excellent career!’

He has been a attorney since 2006 (he has an MSci from KCL and DPhil from Oxford).  There are about 50/50 PhDs/non-PhD attorneys at his firm.

He does a lot of patent defence work, where he enjoys the argument and scrapping face to face with an opposing attorney.  He says that he is acting as an advocate for his clients, always looking for angles and answers to problems.

As you develop through the career, your role moves more into business development and client management – he has had trips to see clients in the US for example.

Private practice vs in-house: private practice will be larger with more trainees, a wider breadth of experience; in-house will be very focussed, smaller and largely not in London.

Reasons he likes the role:

  • Partners can make up to £1m
  • You can work part-time
  • You can get to choose your specialism
  • You can become a freelance
  • It is pretty easy to move around once you’re in the profession

Top tips for applications:

DON’T say you want to be an attorney because

  • you’re bored of working in the lab
  • you’re interested in science
  • you want to be at the forefront of technology

DO say:

  • you want to be an advocate for a client
  • you’re interested in communications and language
  • you like solving problems and finding solutions
  • you’re interested in incremental improvements to business.