Becoming a Patent Attorney
Looking back, I really had very little knowledge of the profession when I started. I have undoubtedly been very fortunate in my choice of career, although perhaps rather more than by luck than by judgement.
Today there is much more information available about the profession. Patent issues are often and openly discussed at the industry level (for example, the UK Department of Trade and Industry has recently been active in promoting this field) and at university careers fairs. While information on the profession is now more accessible, it remains incredibly difficult to get your foot in the door, with much competition for traineeships.
The profession is small (around 1500 qualified UK attorneys), and the only way to qualify is an on-the-job apprenticeship, together with professional exams. The first set of UK exams can be replaced by taking the 1-year MSc in Intellectual Property at Queen Mary & Westfield College, London. Having this diploma may be persuasive in obtaining your first job, but as always, the situation will depend on individuals and positions available.
It is important to try and gain as much information as possible on the reality of working as a patent attorney before seeking a trainee position. The uninformed candidate is likely to be wasting both their time as well as the interviewer's. Without knowing about the profession, how can you know that it's what you want to do?
In brief, I would describe the job as quite academic, relating to determining and resolving intellectual property issues. In addition, there is a lot of interaction with clients, at all levels, ranging from inventors to managers, as well as CEOs and company directors. On a day-to-day basis, my job involves advising on all areas of patents: I write patent applications, persuade patent offices all over the world to grant patents to my clients, defend and attack patents, perform patentability and right-to-use searches, as well as advise on patentability and infringement issues and patent portfolio strategy and management.
In addition to general reading about the profession, I would recommend contacting the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys. The institute can provide references to pamphlets and books on the profession and may also be able to arrange a visit to a Patent Attorney's office ( not an interview) to informally talk about the profession. Nowadays at my firm, we have undergraduates and postgraduates visiting us up to 3 years before they are looking for a position, which at least shows forward thinking. Alternatively, if you already know somebody in the profession, ask them if you can visit their office and perhaps meet some of the trainees in their firm for tips and pointers about getting a job.
The institute also sells a membership list, which details each person in the profession and the firms and industrial departments. This provides a suitable list for application letters and you can focus on firms or departments specialising in your technical background.
Skills and Attributes Needed: The CV
It is an academic profession, and a basic requirement is a good first degree (usually 2:1 or above). There are now a great deal more applicants than positions and employers can apply high standards. This is my checklist for deciding whether to invite a candidate for an interview, on review of their CV and covering letter:
2:1 degree in appropriate science subject
less than two spelling mistakes or grammatical errors
at least French or German to O level
some knowledge of the profession
qualification/research in particular area of client interest (e.g., research project or PhD)
any advocacy skills (experience of presenting arguments orally, such as public speaking or debating)
further academic qualification (e.g., PhD or MSc in any subject)
high-level competitive sport
any additional attribute (e.g., technical writing experience, patent searching experience, etc.)
The first four bullet points are essential (in my opinion). It is unlikely that an interview would be given (by me) without at least one of the nonessential bullet points being fulfilled.
This is very much an opportunity to determine whether a bright, young graduate has the personality for the job and can fit into the firm (or department). It is important that the candidate is not too shy or nervous. The ability to present a point of view, in response to issues raised, is essential.
During my interviewing, I usually take the opportunity to find out how much the candidate knows about the profession. Little knowledge is not very impressive, but it's not possible to know everything. I try to ensure that any gaps in understanding are filled in. For example, the ability to communicate well, in writing, is essential and it will probably take 2 to 3 years as a trainee to learn how to write a decent three-page letter relating to patent issues. This involves a fair degree of supervision and criticism. In addition, it's important to me to highlight the least glamorous parts of the job (such as travel, which is extremely tough) and the difficult exams, which are only finished around 4 to 6 years after entering the profession. My own experience as a trainee, and my experience in training, is that 3 to 41/2 years into the profession, when taking final examinations, is the hardest time. It's important that new trainees understand that this time--working while revising for examinations--is not going to be very enjoyable. This job is not glamorous and high-flying. It can be extremely rewarding, but, like most professions, the rewards are reaped from the hard work invested.
As a summary, I would describe the job as an interesting mix of academic work and developing good relationships with people. I consider myself very fortunate to be in this profession. As a test, I try to consider what other job I would prefer to do. I can never think of anything better.