Is a patent attorney a type of lawyer?
Yes. However, you do not need a law degree to become a patent attorney. Patent attorneys are a specialist type of lawyer monitored by their own regulator, IPReg. The role of a patent attorney involves advising clients on those areas of law applicable to intellectual property. Consequently, during training you will be required to develop a thorough understanding and knowledge of, for example, the UK Patents Acts 1977 and 2004, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and the Trade Marks Act 1994.
You will also be required to develop your knowledge of contract law, competition law and company law. Patent attorneys with appropriate additional qualifications have the right to represent their clients in intellectual property matters before the courts.
Is it necessary to study a science subject at university?
It is very difficult to enter the profession without a degree in a science, engineering, technology or a mathematics based subject, or equivalent, from a recognised institution. Most firms also require at least a 2:1 in a first degree. A science/engineering background is required to enable you to understand a client’s invention, even if it relates to subject matter you have not previously encountered. This mix between science/engineering and law is one of the aspects that make the role of a patent attorney such an interesting career.
A degree, although not necessarily a science degree, is required by the regulations governing the examinations for registration as a patent attorney in the UK. The European Patent Office permits non-science graduates to take the European qualifying examination (which enables someone to qualify as a European patent attorney), but only if they can show they have undertaken ten years’ training with a firm of patent attorneys.
Do I need to have a PhD?
The level of understanding obtained through a PhD could be beneficial in some technical areas. However, the caseload of a patent attorney often varies and it is unusual for a patent attorney to be able to concentrate solely on one specific subject matter area unless they work in-house. Consequently, the benefit of a PhD could be limited in the sense that it would only be of benefit to those cases falling within the narrow definition of the technical area of your PhD. Nonetheless, some private practice firms do require trainees to have a PhD.
How do you become a patent attorney?
The training occurs, for the most part, on-the-job and generally involves working for one or more fully qualified patent attorneys, and preparing for and sitting a series of examinations.
The examinations include those set by the Patent Examination Board (PEB), which must be taken in order to become a registered (UK) patent attorney. This is a two-tier system involving Foundation Examinations and Final Examinations. Candidates must pass one of the Foundation Examinations before they are eligible to sit the Final Examinations. University courses are available to obtain an exemption from some or all of the Foundation Examinations. Examinations are also set by the European Patent Office. These must be taken in order to become a European patent attorney.
In addition, since many patent attorneys also handle trade mark work, they may also benefit from becoming a registered trade mark attorney (a UK qualification) and a European trade mark attorney.
How long will it take me to qualify?
The examinations set by the PEB are held annually. Consequently, the minimum length of time to become a Chartered Patent Attorney is two years. However, in reality it often takes longer, particularly if it becomes necessary to retake any of the examinations. Typically, it takes 4-6 years to become a registered patent attorney.
The examinations set by the European Patent Office are also held annually and require candidates to have worked for two years under the supervision of a European patent attorney before sitting the pre-examination and for three years under the supervision of a European patent attorney before sitting the main examinations. For this reason, it is common for people to become registered patent attorneys before becoming European patent attorneys.
What other skills or qualifications are required?
A patent attorney must be able to communicate effectively with personnel at all levels within an organisation, as well as with people having varying levels of understanding about patents. Therefore, it is important to have good oral and written communication skills.
One of the main skills of a patent attorney is to be able to understand an invention on the basis of discussions with an inventor and to then draft a detailed specification directed to the invention. This process requires an ability to identify the core features of an invention. English, French and German are the official languages of the European Patent Office and a working knowledge of French and/or German can be beneficial. For more in-depth advice read our article on the ten essential skills for being a patent attorney.
What kind of salary can I expect?
The salaries of patent attorneys compare well with those of other professions such as accountancy and law. Salaries tend to be relatively low initially, increasing gradually through training and increasing significantly following qualification.
Do patent attorneys work at the UK Intellectual Property Office?
No. The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is an Executive Agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Its role is to grant patents and register trade marks and designs.
How do I go about finding a job?
One way is to decide whether you would prefer to work in an industrial patents department or in a private firm of patent attorneys. You could then apply on a speculative basis to potential employers. Depending on the subject you have studied at university, there may be certain companies to which you would be particularly suited and you could start off targeting those.
Your job search could be helped by obtaining the latest membership list of CIPA, which contains a list of names and addresses of all patent attorneys and firms in the UK. A very useful first step is to refer to the Employer Directory or view our current patent vacancies. Alternatively, see the CIPA website for patent job opportunities. The CIPA Journal supplement, which is published each month and sent to all CIPA members, also includes a recruitment section.
Can I get work experience?
Work experience in the profession is rare, though some firms do offer internship programmes, keep and eye out for current insights and internships. Due to the varied nature of the work, and the complications associated with client confidentiality, many firms believe that structured work experience programmes do not offer sufficient value to either candidates or the employers that organise them. For most prospective employers, academic excellence is prized above work experience. If you would like to gain first-hand insight into the operations of patent firms, and be able to demonstrate this experience on your CV, many recruiters host open days. You can find all our open days here.
Are there particular times of year when firms recruit?
Vacancies for trainee patent attorneys tend to crop up as and when the need arises. However, many firms find that they have more potential candidates if they seek to recruit towards the end of the academic year, as final year university students are approaching the end of their courses. A number of firms hold interviews early in the academic year, for vacancies to be filled during the following autumn. In general, it is often a good idea to register your interest as soon as you have decided to join the profession.