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Patent attorneys: a combination of science and law

Spotlight on patent attorneys: how to get a graduate job

Competition for trainee patent attorney jobs is tough. Peter Silcock, a partner at J A Kemp, describes the qualifications and skills you’ll need to impress patent attorney firms and what you can expect from the application and interview process.

There are only a few trainee patent attorney jobs available each year so you’ll need to stand out from the crowd if you want to secure a job offer. Find out what skills patent attorney firms are looking for and what questions you might face at an interview for a trainee patent attorney position.

What qualifications do you need to become a patent attorney?

You will need a degree in any field of science or technology. This excludes maths but includes engineering, chemistry, physics and biology. Different firms will have different entry requirements but you’ll most likely need a 2.1 as lots of firms want an excellent academic record. This might also include your academic achievements before university. J A Kemp, for example, asks for a minimum of 360 UCAS points as well as a 2.1 degree.

It’s not necessary to have a PhD or other postgraduate qualification but it can help. You’re often working with scientists so it makes it easier to engage with them if you’ve come from a similar background and understand their environment.

You definitely don’t need any legal qualifications to become a trainee patent attorney. The qualifications you study for on the job cover the legal side of things.

What skills does a trainee patent attorney need?

It can be difficult to get work experience in this area but it’s by no means necessary. Some firms do offer work experience, such as open days or internships, but not many of the trainees we take on at J A Kemp have work experience in patents. The qualities of the person are much more important.

An interest in both scientific matters and intellectual property is essential. You’ll need to understand the technology you’re trying to get a patent for but you also need to have an interest in the legal side of things. It’s impressive if somebody has read up on patents and knows about IP.

A good trainee patent attorney will also have:

  • Excellent spoken and written English – written English is particularly important for drafting patent applications and responding to examiner’s reports.
  • An ability to explain complex matters clearly – you’ll need to be able to break down scientific and legal matters for your client and give clear advice.
  • Accuracy, an analytical mind and an eye for detail – you’ll really need to go into the details of the technology you want a patent for and what’s already been done. For example, you’ll need to spot inconsistencies in the patent examiner’s objections to your patent application.
  • High levels of organisation and motivation – you’ll need to juggle different patent cases and deadlines. You might have hundreds of cases on your books at any one time. Not all of them will need attention there and then, but you need to keep things moving and keep everything organised.
  • An outgoing and proactive approach – you need to be confident in suggesting options to your client and also be able to contribute proactively to business development.
  • Listening skills – you’ll need to listen to your client to learn about their technology and understand their business objectives.

The ability to speak another language is an advantage but not essential. If you can speak Chinese or Japanese, for example, this helps when you’re meeting clients from those countries.

What is the application process for a trainee patent attorney position?

Competition for trainee patent attorney positions is tough. Each firm only takes between one and six new trainees a year. To maximise your chances, don’t just apply to one firm. Most firms will have details of how to apply to them on their websites. This will usually set out what they’re looking for, details of the training available and how to apply.

A trainee patent attorney will typically join a firm in the autumn although start dates may be flexible. It’s a good idea to apply before the end of the calendar year if you want to start the following autumn, but you can also apply speculatively throughout the year.

The first part of your application will probably be a CV and covering letter. Give a summary of who you are, what you’ve done and why you want to be a patent attorney. This is your chance to sell yourself and show off your great written English.

You might then also be given a written test based around describing an invention. This won’t require any specific technical understanding, and will be testing whether you can describe the invention accurately and clearly.

What is a typical interview like?

An interview for a trainee patent attorney position is likely to include some general competency questions as well as motivational questions such as ‘Why do you want to be a patent attorney?’ and ‘Why do you want to work for this firm/company?’.

You will also face abstract questions such as ‘Describe how a staple remover works’. These will test whether you can explain things accurately and in clear terms. Depending on the team you’re applying to, the questions will most likely relate to that area of technology.

You may be asked to talk about your research project at university. Your interviewers will be looking at how you take a complex area of technology and explain it to them logically in plain English.

Thanks to Peter Silcock for his help with this article. Peter is a partner in the chemistry and pharmaceuticals group at J A Kemp. He started his career as a patent attorney in 2002 and joined J A Kemp in 2005.

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