Securing a training place as a patent attorney is not always easy. The profession remains one of the smallest in the UK, yet awareness of it as a career is growing and this inevitably leads to competition for places. Of course, your chances will be greatly increased if you have the unusual blend of skills that you need to be a successful patent attorney and invest time and effort in the application process.
Skills and qualifications
You will have read in the Ten Essential Skills article that patent attorneys need to be able to understand technical information in order to properly understand an invention. A degree in a science subject is a basic requirement and employers will normally look for at least a 2:1 from a good university. They will also look for evidence that you have interest and ability across a range of science subjects, for example, a good spread of A level results. A PhD or time spent working in industry is also increasingly valued by employers.
At least as important are analytical and linguistic skills. A patent attorney needs to understand the law as it applies to any given application and act as an advocate in prosecuting and defending the case. Therefore, an applicant will need to have a strong interest in effective presentation of arguments, particularly in writing.
In order to progress in the profession and to enjoy the process, you will also need to be self-motivated, committed and able to hold it together under pressure.
Where to apply
An entirely reasonable approach is to apply to as many places as possible. However, you should consider before applying whether you are more interested in working in private practice or in industry. This can take the job in quite different directions.
Private practice (in which I work) is defined by the fact that we have clients who instruct us to act on their behalf. We are therefore under pressure to balance the needs of different clients. On the other hand, we tend to see a range of work and come across a wider range of technical questions (which can help with passing the exams). It is worth noting that not all private practice firms recruit trainees and even those that do offer comparatively small numbers of positions each year.
Working in industry, there is more emphasis on working with inventors to ‘invention spot’, and working with business managers to design IP strategies which will work for the company.
Although you may be sending off applications to many different firms, this should not mean simply posting off 20 copies of your CV. You will need to research each firm and make sure your application is suitable. At a basic level, you should check whether they have their own application form and whether they ask for any written work to accompany the application.
If written work is asked for, then this is something to take seriously. Firms receive a large number of applications from highly qualified applicants and rely on the written work in deciding who to invite for interview.
You are being given an opportunity to show that you can analyse how something works and explain this clearly. If asked to pick an object to write about, the ones that tend to work best are simple mechanical objects that have moving parts. Keep in mind the difference between defining and describing an object.
Otherwise, make sure that your CV is well laid out and free of spelling mistakes. If you don’t already know, learn how to use an apostrophe. Misuse of the apostrophe is the kind of thing that really annoys a patent attorney.
Try to avoid merely asserting that you have the right skills to be a patent attorney – if you can, provide the evidence as well. Have you worked on a student journal, won prizes for your writing skills, or worked in areas of science outside of your immediate discipline? If so, put it in. A covering letter is also useful; treat it as another opportunity to show that you can communicate effectively in writing.
Interviewing style differs substantially from firm to firm. Some firms focus on technical questions. Others will ask a lot more about what you know of the profession and why you want to be a part of it. You should of course be prepared for both!
You may be asked about your project or about your PhD. However, remember that you are not being interviewed for a job as a bench scientist. Your interviewer will be less interested in what your project involved than in the way you explain it. You may also be asked questions to probe your scientific curiosity. You may have used a particular piece of apparatus for three years – but do you know how it works?
You could also be put on the spot and asked to think about some simple mechanical objects in the interview. It is unlikely you will be expected to come out with a perfect answer straight away. Your interviewer will be just as interested in your process of reasoning and your ability to think on your feet.
While interview nerves are inevitable, employers are looking for someone who will be able to run meetings and who will eventually be able to present oral arguments at the European Patent Office. Therefore, try to stay calm and coherent, even if this means taking a bit of time to think about your answer.
Making a decision
You should also remember that at the end of all this, you may find yourself in the happy position of having more than one job offer. You therefore need to think about what you want from the firm. How do they support their trainees, both in their day to day work and for the examinations? Do they send trainees on a course that gives exemption from foundation exams and if not, what do they provide instead to get you through these? How many qualified people do they have working in your technical area? Asking some of these questions at interview should help you decide if the firm is somewhere you might want to work.
Finally, don’t be too disheartened if you don’t secure a place at your first-choice firm. Remember that most firms can offer only a handful of places a year and are unlikely to have more than one or two in your technical area. Many firms, both small and large, will be able to offer you excellent training and give you a firm foothold in this fascinating profession.