Writing this profile has made me think about what I planned to achieve when I left university. The truth is that when I started thinking about my career, I didn’t really have an understanding of what a professional role really involved, let alone what was going to motivate me in 10 or 20 years’ time. When I decided to be a patent attorney it was because I wanted to remain involved in science, which I loved, whilst at the same time trying my hand at business. I thought I was more likely to ‘make my fortune’ this way than if I stayed on as a postdoc at university. In practical terms I wanted a good job that paid well, that would require me to develop new skills as well as benefit from those I had already, having worked so hard to get a degree from Cambridge.
I joined GJE in 1998, having obtained a PhD in Materials Science. I had studied as an undergraduate at Cambridge too and, having surprised myself with my degree grade, took the chance to do a PhD for the usual reasons (liked the academic lifestyle, wasn’t ready to get a real job yet and, yes, wanted to call myself ‘Doctor’). If you’re wondering if a PhD will help you to get into the patent profession, from my personal experience in recruitment, it doesn’t matter either way. For me, the applicants that shine at interview are those who are happy to ‘be themselves’, who are enthusiastic, can communicate well and demonstrate an interest in the role. As an applicant, the firm you’re applying to must ‘feel’ right – so if you get a choice, I’d say to go with your instinct.
I remember that, for me, the main attraction to the patent profession was to be able to continue learning about new developments in science and technology and to meet the people pushing the frontiers of innovation (whilst being paid of course!). As I found out, in practice, the job of a patent attorney is essentially a legal one with a strong scientific context. What I didn’t know when I chose this profession was that it would be the strong attorney-client relationships which make the job so rewarding. Relationships which I hope will last for my entire career. For me the ‘good stuff’ is all about people interaction. I also didn’t realise the buzz I would get out of business. Private practice provides me with an immense diversity of clients in terms of size, structure, culture, industry and technology, so there is always so much to learn. The more I can understand our clients’ businesses the more I, and GJE as a firm, can add value. Clients want advice not just options so we try to deliver on that.
One of the essential attributes I didn’t fully realise I’d need is the ability to communicate well in all sorts of situations and with all sorts of people. It’s a critical skill which can always be improved upon. I am in a service industry in which success is heavily dependent upon good relationships. Being able to communicate well helps me to retain clients and attract new ones (and these are key factors by which my success at work is assessed). A good rapport with clients, along with openness and honesty helps to form strong working relationships.
I recently led a project to replace our practice management system. We were all under immense pressure to deliver and not only did I have to get the team to the finish line, I had to ‘sell’ fundamental new ways of working to my partners and to members of staff. These weren’t skills I had been taught at university or in my professional exams.
Another attribute I hadn’t considered greatly was whether I had the ability to really understand business, my ‘commercial acumen’ if you like. Of course, time in the job and having the opportunity to attend meetings; visit clients both in the UK and overseas; present at conferences; be a member of various business operations groups and business development teams; and pitch for work have all helped me to develop my skills in this area. Most senior patent attorneys are required to make decisions that impact upon the success of their own business and now as a partner at GJE it is an important part of my role.
I always aimed to be a partner – indeed you’ll note my career is rather similar to others – I didn’t change employer but I am extremely privileged in this respect and to have been made a partner at GJE. It’s far more challenging than I had originally thought when I was a trainee. It is a position which comes with immense responsibility; every individual of the firm is relying on me to drive the firm forward and ensure it is always successful. Responsibilities for client work often compete with training our new recruits in such areas as people management, business development, and business initiative and in particular, the ongoing drive to improve and integrate our internal IT systems. There is always lots to do, lots going on and a need for more time. Fortunately, I am the sort of person that likes to be kept occupied!
So, going back to whether I have achieved the ambitions of my twenty-something year old self at university, well yes. I am in a great profession that brings intellectual challenge on a daily basis; it is an excellent job which pays well and, on a rare quiet day, I can continue to indulge my love of science. Much more than that though, I’ve discovered things about myself that I had never really appreciated at university and I now know what motivates me at work and why I commute to London each morning. As for making my fortune, define fortune…