• Role: Trainee Attorney
  • Location: London
  • University: Cambridge
  • Degree: MEng Engineering
  • Organisation: HGF

Chris Cottingham

I spent 18 months after university doing scientific research into radar before I finally recognised a life in research, constantly chasing funding from research programmes, wasn’t for me. Twelve months down the line, I’m definitely pleased I changed tack. I’m now a part-qualified patent attorney at one of the largest intellectual property specialist law firms in the country, and we’re still growing.

Getting my job at HGF Limited

Like most trainees I’ve spoken to, I applied using a mixture of speculative covering letters and CVs, and completing more formal applications for some of the firms who were recruiting at the time.

I interviewed for a job with HGF in our Manchester office, but after interview it was thought I’d be more suited to an available vacancy in our London office, where I’m currently based.

Application process

For my position at HGF, I saw an advert on Inside Careers and applied by emailing my covering letter and CV to the HR team. After a first sift, I was invited to a first interview with our HR Director. Following this, I was invited to a second interview in our Manchester office. I again met with the HR Director, and met the Head of the Engineering Group, who is my current manager. This interview was more technical, with a written exercise forming part of the assessment process. I was offered a job the same day and I accepted shortly after.

Every patent attorney firm is slightly different, so don’t be afraid to ask what makes a firm stand out. I enjoy being part of a friendly and ambitious firm; one that is ready to listen to new ideas and has a good trainee retention rate.

Main duties

One might imagine that most of a patent attorney’s life is spent writing patents, but this is not generally the case. One of the most attractive aspects of being a trainee at HGF is that I get to spend time meeting with clients and inventors. This provides me with the opportunity to find out about the inventor’s business and invention firsthand, and to write a patent application which accurately describes their invention.

Although I spend a significant amount of time meeting with inventors, this is not all I do. I also spend a large portion of my time drafting counter-arguments against a patent examiner’s arguments that the client’s invention is unpatentable. This is a very engaging side of my job, and I enjoy the chance to form robust, well-reasoned arguments. As a trainee, it is important for me to learn the skills required to perform these tasks, both in terms of drafting convincing arguments, and how these arguments align with cases which have been previously decided in the courts. In addition, I must know about the procedure which must be followed to achieve the grant of a patent whilst balancing any cost requirements of the client.

Most patent attorneys work alone or in a small group. As a trainee, all my work will be checked before it is sent out to a client. As I gain more experience, the amount of review and checking required will decrease. However, I know plenty of experienced patent attorneys in my firm who will seek a second opinion from a colleague in unusual or challenging cases.

Most stressful parts of the job

The job is most stressful when a deadline is approaching. Perhaps the client is launching their new product today, and in order to ensure the invention described by the patent application fulfils the requirement of being new, the patent application must be filed today also. Late nights are sometimes required, but in my experience, these have been infrequent.

Another stressful part of the job of a patent attorney can be when the grant or continued validity of a patent depends upon the result of a hearing, during which the patent attorney may be called upon to convince a panel of the validity of the patent, possibly arguing against another patent attorney. In these cases, one wrong statement can see the patent revoked. I’m yet to be directly involved in one of these, though I’ve prepared files for the hearings previously. Presenting at a hearing is highly unlikely to happen before I’m fully qualified.

Useful skills for the job

In this profession, an eye for detail is vital. An argument may turn on the smallest distinction between two highly similar technologies. Effective communication skills, both written and oral, are also important in order to present a convincing argument. Good time management is also key to ensuring all deadlines are met.

A passion for science and inventions is great. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is finding out about the latest development of a small inventor, or even some multinational household names.

Is it a 9-5 job?

In terms of the job itself, it is generally true that as a trainee you will not be expected to take client work home, or regularly work long into the night. Weekend working is actively discouraged, both for trainees and qualified attorneys. However, to become a chartered patent attorney in the UK (and a qualified European patent attorney) a number of exams must be taken. The knowledge needed to pass these exams is highly likely to require a significant amount of work outside normal working hours. With a structured study schedule, this need not take over your life though, and HGF has a flexible approach when it comes to sitting each of the exams.

Advice for others

My advice if you’re considering a career as a patent attorney is to research the profession thoroughly. Most of the other trainees I know, both at my own firm, and at others, found this guide very useful for giving a fair representation of life as a patent attorney. It is also important to be persistent; the job market for trainee patent attorneys is highly competitive and it is not unusual for successful candidates to have received a number of rejections from other firms before being offered a job.

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