Understanding how practices differ and what might suit you can often help to focus your job searching efforts, lead to greater job satisfaction and help determine your career path. Adam Tindall from Appleyard Lees explains what the difference in work and environment can be within corporate and private practices for patent attorneys.
Some IP lawyers work directly for industrial firms (corporate or ‘in-house’) while others work in specialist law firms (private practice). In-house jobs are rarer, with the majority of attorneys working in private practice. I trained and worked in-house for a huge engineering firm and then moved to private practice, which wins me the right to be flattering and critical about both.
While the core skills are the same, they are very different jobs. Resorting to analogy, it’s like comparing the skills needed to drive a racing car and a taxi. For both, you need to know about steering and changing gear, and be oblivious to the existence of an indicator. But a racing car driver would be ignorant of the backstreet shortcuts an experienced cabbie would know, and a taxi driver would not know how to take a car around a bend at incredible speeds without spinning off the track (although he/she might try).
Drop an attorney trained and experienced in industry into private practice and they may be astonished at the demands placed upon them by a constant need for timeliness, speed and customer care. Introduce an attorney who has had a lifetime in private practice into an industrial office and they may be dazzled by the administration, bureaucracy, organisational structures and requirement to integrate and communicate with their immediate team and dozens of people in an ‘extended’ team throughout the organisation.
Depending on which company you end up working for, corporate IP departments generally require their attorneys to consider the issues of their firm as a whole, and to make judgments based on their understanding of what might be best for the company. This responsibility can be a little overwhelming, but usually there are plenty of people in senior positions in relevant technical areas who are willing to advise if you can find them.
Also, attorneys in industrial departments tend to have a focus on harvesting and evaluating IP in its many forms as much as registering and securing it. This is tremendous fun as it gives you the chance to talk to incredibly clever and creative people who have interesting things to say and show you. Your job is to keep asking questions until you understand. As with any job, you occasionally have to deal with difficult people and questionable ideas, but as that can be a useful source of dinner party-worthy anecdotes, it is not entirely wasted time.
Starting at the bottom, career progression through an industrial department will be from trainee to qualified attorney and then to Head of Department, provided such an elevated opportunity arises. Industrial attorneys may spend much of their career cyclically performing the same tasks of invention harvesting, drafting, and prosecuting month after month with variation coming from different inventions from (mostly) the same core people in the business.
In an industrial department one tends to feel a little bit remote from the leading edge of the firm. Seldom will any one thing you do clearly have an impact on the firm, although depending on the product line, you will get some enjoyment from seeing the products you have analysed on shop shelves, on the street, in peoples’ hands etc.
An attorney in private practice is expected to advise and educate their clients and then, regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do, in the view of the attorney (within limits), they must carry out the instructions of the client.
Attorneys in private practice see a much wider range of technology than their colleagues in industry, and control of workflow is less easy to achieve as the private practice attorney inevitably receives instructions last minute from the client. They may also become embroiled in infringement and enforcement issues more often than their industry colleagues.
Career progression in private practice firms starts at trainee level, a status that will last until you pass the requisite number of exams. The level of trust and autonomy given to you will depend on competence and perhaps the policy of the firm. Some do not let you talk to a client until you are qualified. Some expose you to the outside world, provided you are able to present the right image and harvest the right information.
In private practice, one’s relevance to the success of the firm is much more obvious than in industry. The amount of money you bring in and the clients you introduce to the firm provide and show obvious benefits, and this can be very satisfying. Of course, it also carries the risk that your failures will likewise have an impact on the firm.
Questions to consider
Whether you go for a job in industry or private practice, remember that people like you are in short supply. Make sure you ask about provisions for internal and external training, because for the next three years at least, training is going to be a big part of your life. Ask to go for a coffee with current trainees and quiz them. They most likely will not tell you any negatives about the firm you are interested in, but they almost certainly will not lie to you that training is brilliant if it is not.
Salary and benefits vary from firm to firm. It is worth knowing about reward packages, of course, but really your concern should be getting that first job in a supportive firm and getting qualified. After that, many opportunities will be open to you.
One sector is not any more valid than the other, and whether you enjoy the job is probably more to do with the people that you find there than whether you are in industry or private practice.
In either sector, this niche area of law has much to offer. If you are curious about the world and enjoy learning new things, I recommend it.
If you found this article interesting head to our Employer Directory to see who is currently recruiting; you may even find your future employer.