Career Spotlight: insights about working as a patent attorney

We were joined by Dr Marianne Shepherd and Stuart Lumsden from Marks & Clerk, and Dr Robert Andrew from Mewburn Ellis.  You might like to find out about last year’s speakers here.

Both main speakers (Marianne and Robert) struck me as really interested in their science, quietly determined to make the most of their knowledge and delighted by the technical intricacies of attorney work.  Sound like you?  Read on!

Marianne has recently joined the firm, from a molecular biology PhD at Oxford, and says that she chose patent attorney work because it would be intellectually stimulating, broaden her knowledge, and enable her to use her technical knowledge.

She described the work as a way for inventors to gain protection of their work from the state, and for them to control exploitation of the work.  Patent applications work both ways: you get the patent rights, but you also have the disclose the information about the invention too.

Her day includes

  • providing information to inventors about whether or not their work is patentable
  • describing the invention to make an application – you have to widen out the description to cover future commercial applications
  • preparing the patent application for the Patent Office
  • preparing response to any Patent Office objections, which involves reading documents and understanding the invention very clearly.

The application process for her was much the same as many standard graduate schemes.  She attended Open Days at various firms’ offices, and also sent some speculative letters.  Interviews are reasonably tricky, but so long as you are well-prepared about what patent attorneys do and are clear about the technical knowledge that you bring them, they are not particularly different from other interviews.  You will, though, probably be given a drafting exercise, where you may have to describe something (eg a pair of scissors or a pencil) so that they can check your grammar, proof-reading, and the clarity of your thought processes.

Training should be very comprehensive and one of the distinguishing features between firms is how much training support they offer.  You train for four years, with a partner of the firm over seeing your work.  You qualify both as a UK and EU patent attorney (there is no language requirement) and have lots of exams.  This may well be the first time you have ever failed an exam but it is known that people will fail!!!  Once you have passed these exams, you could work as an independent patent attorney, or stay working for a firm.

She says that patent attorney work is not really a job for those that need social interaction face to face: much of the time you are working on your own or over the phone and email.

Robert is a more senior patent attorney who completed a PhD in 2006.  His areas of work now extend across industrial enzymes, stem cells and dental implants, for example.

He said that what clients are paying for is attorneys’ detailed knowledge of the complex system, and the global connections firms have.  His work, in addition to that that Marianne undertakes, includes defending patent decisions in the EU courts (eg Brussels) where you are doing oral objections, a bit like a barrister.  You are ‘thinking fast about science’!

As you become more senior, then you might take more of a business development role, such as, for example, going to work with a client company in Korea to understand their business better.

Skills required:

  • to be able to read, think and write a lot
  • good all-round technical and science awareness
  • analytical approach
  • a feeling for an grasp of words
  • communication
  • working to deadlines and under pressure

It is a relatively secure and well-paid profession, 80% of the work in the UK is in London, there are good opportunities to become partner, and it’s a very independent role.  The hours are good and you could go and work in-house just for one client company.  Languages are useful when working with clients, but not to do the job.  You bill by 6 minute slots of your time!

See CareersTagged for more information about this role.

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!


Trainee Patent Attorneys

**This post is over a year old but may help you identify employers, job titles or skills you need to research your next posting**

I note that Reddie and Grose Chartered Patent attorneys are still in the market for trainees in 3 areas:

1. Electronics and Telecoms

2. Engineering / materials

3. Biotechnology

Check them out . They look for literate engineers and scientists whom they can turn into people who ‘think like lawyers’.

Careers in Science forum

My colleague Laura McKenzie has put together a great programme for

Wednesday, 17 February: 1.00-4.30

in Henriette Raphael Function Room, Guy’s Campus

 Speakers will cover woking in Pharma and Biotech, Science communication, Healthcare consultancy and Patents.

 Draft Programme

 1.00-1.20           Informal networking; opportunity to browse careers materials & recruitment stands

 1.30-2.15           Session One:

Working in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries

Working in the pharmaceutical industry                Peter Llewellyn – Network  Pharma

Working in Biotechnology                                   James Hunter, Proximagen Ltd

2.30-3.00           Session Two: Alternatives to research

Patent work

Philip Webber – Patent Attorney, Frank B Dehn & Co

Healthcare consultancy                                    

  Paul Gittins – Red Consultancy

3.15-4.00           Session Three: Working in science communications

Science communications and events                   Dominique Driver – Science Museum

Medical Writing                                           Philippa Cates – Medicus International

Scientific publishing               Ruth King & Natasha Mellins-Cohen  – Biomed Central

Patents and Intellectual Property careers

Trainee Patent Attorney 

Carpmaels & Ransford

Carpmaels & Ransford annually employs up to six trainee patent attorneys. Further information on the firm and Open Days visit our website

Next open day –10 Dec – apply now!


  Info for applicants 


Carpmaels & Ransford, 43-45 Bloomsbury Square, London, , WC1A 2RA


How to apply

CV with covering letter