While I was investigating career opportunities outside research science, I came across an advertisement for a technical assistant (essentially a trainee patent attorney) at F. B. Rice & Co., applied more or less on a whim, and was lucky enough to be offered the position. It was only after I began my new career that I realised that the paths leading from the biological sciences (I'm a molecular biologist) to patent law in Australia vary greatly among people and that the process of becoming a patent attorney is not always a straight one.
A science degree is required for registration as a patent attorney. But through "academic inflation," it is becoming increasingly difficult to move into the profession in Australia without a Ph.D. This mainly applies to those with a biological or chemical degree; in other technology areas--mechanical engineering, for example--a Ph.D. is not essential, particularly if a Ph.D. is not the benchmark used to assess scientific or technical skills in that area. A law degree is not essential; however, you can only qualify if you've taken a number of courses in intellectual property (IP) law. These courses (nine in total) range from basic law and the essentials of Australian patent and trademark legislation to international patent law and more applied subjects such as patent drafting. A handful of universities offer two-thirds of the courses; trainees have the option of studying the final three subjects through the IPTA Academy, which is run by the Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys of Australia. IPTA campuses are located in Sydney and Melbourne, but courses can also be completed by correspondence.
Although the IP field is still relatively small in Australia, the number of job opportunities is increasing. Still, you can adopt several strategies that should enhance your chances of obtaining a position in a firm. Time and money permitting, beginning the coursework before you apply certainly cannot hurt. And having some postdoctoral experience can help you stand out from your competitors. I am sure it was valuable in my case, because I had a total of 5 years of postdoctoral experience in molecular biology: 3 years at a lab overseas (at Rigshospitalet in Denmark) and 2 years at a lab in Australia (at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research). Another strategy is to gain some IP experience through other avenues, such as working in the IP department of a university, research institute, or company. Although having some experience is desirable, on-the-job training is more important for gaining the tools you'll need to practice as a patent attorney.
Other patent attorneys have made their way into the field by taking a position as a patent examiner at the Australian Patent Office. In addition to a strong technical background and a Ph.D. in a relevant field, excellent written and oral communication skills are also essential. But it is equally important to note that the selection criteria can differ between patent law firms.
All in a Day's Work
A significant proportion of my workday is spent sitting behind a desk, which lies somewhere beneath a large mound of paper. Because many people considering IP as a career are keen to escape the lab bench, the large amount of paperwork is not usually a problem, and most researchers eventually become "desk jockeys" these days anyway. However, this sedentary lifestyle will not suit everyone.
Scientific research can be extremely rewarding, particularly the part where you finally get that important experiment to work and publish the results. As a patent attorney I am still at the forefront of science; however, it is no longer my own research that is the focus of my attention. A nice perk of my job is that because a patentable invention must be new, I hear about new research before the rest of the world does. As clients go through the patenting process, I become increasingly familiar with their current research and advise them of desirable further research that will strengthen their patent position.
When you first start working as a trainee patent attorney, you are primarily involved in securing patent protection in Australia for overseas clients, under the supervision of a senior attorney in the firm. This provides the opportunity to gain an appreciation for the basic concepts of Australian patent law. One can also expect the science to be challenging, as well as the need to determine the best strategy to suit your client's needs. Over time, you gain exposure to local clients, initially drafting patent specifications and ultimately advising the client on various aspects relevant to managing their patent portfolio. By the time you are qualified and established in the profession, you will be an important resource for your clients. This is particularly true for clients in small to medium-sized companies, where your advice can have a significant impact on their future research and affect their commercial strategies.
I certainly do not regret my decision to become a patent attorney. If you're considering a career outside research science, IP is definitely worth investigating.