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.


For those of you interested in law: it’s Legal Week next week (13-17 Oct)

Legal  Week , 13 – 17 October, Various King’s venues

Want to be one of the forty to sixty percent of firms’ trainees from non-law backgrounds like yours? Legal Week is for you.

What? A full programme highlighting sector issues  inc. how to get a vacation scheme,  globalisation, areas of law such as equity capital markets and arbitration, The Bar, and the opportunity to meet law firms’ alumni and graduate recruiters.

You may like to prioritise these sessions:

  • Tuesday, 14th October, 18.00 – 19.00,  FWB – B5  18.00-19.00,  Vacation Schemes: Why you should do them and how to apply  with Allen & Overy
  • Wednesday, 15th October, 18.00 – 19.00, A Career at the Bar: Why do it, how to get there, how to thrive!  With three alumni barristers from both non-law and law backgrounds
  • Friday, 17th October, 13.00 – 14.00,  Law Careers for Non-Law Students  with DLA Piper

More? The full programme is here (you’ll need to be logged into the KCL website for this link to work).

Alumni and organisations involved: Linklaters, Mishcon de Reya, Accutrainee, DLA Piper, The University of Law, Norton Rose Fulbright, Allen & Overy, 11 King’s Bench Walk………………….

Alternatives to academia: thought about the Law?

It might not be top of every PhD’s or post-doc’s list of alternatives, given that it will probably require two further years’ study, but the law and law firms may well be interested in your advanced research skills. And, if you’re lucky enough to secure a ‘training contract’, you might find that training is paid for.

Next week is ‘Legal Week’ at King’s, with a series of varied events aimed at lawyers and non-lawyers alike (law firms like to take around 50% of their trainees from non-law subjects to get a breadth of subject knowledge and style of thought into their organisations).

The whole list is at

A starting point for you may be the event below.

Mon 14 Oct13:00 – 14:00 Law for Non-Lawyers Society event40% of training contracts go to non-law students.

if you aren’t studying law but might be interested in a career in law, come and find out what to do next.

 FWB 1.70

We have a specialist law careers adviser so let me know if you’d like to be put in touch with her.

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!