Why the patent profession needs talented science graduates

JAMES DAWES

High demand for new entrants and the development of IP legislation worldwide make this sector an increasingly exciting career choice, explains James Dawes

For many years the patent profession has successfully attracted some of the very best graduates in the UK to embark on a career as a patent attorney, but why are science graduates, in particular, so sought after?

Innovation, invention, and new technologies have been at the forefront of the UK’s economic recovery, and legislative developments are changing the face of intellectual property protection.

The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) counts 2,000 chartered patent attorneys among its members, rising to 3,500 if you include trainees and other professionals with an interest in intellectual property (IP). These membership figures appear small compared to other legal sectors, but exemplify just how specialist the profession truly is.

Entry requirements

The most common route into the sector is to secure a trainee position in a private practice and commit to four to five years of professional study in order to qualify as a chartered patent attorney. Trainees are typically encouraged to qualify as a European patent attorney (EPA) within the same timeframe, in order to become dual-qualified and potentially progress to partnership status in the long term.

When I first started recruiting for the profession, I can recall one practice firmly stating that their entry level requirements for graduates were ‘unashamedly academic’, and, in truth, this viewpoint still prevails in some quarters.

An undergraduate degree in a hard science or engineering subject is an essential prerequisite to training as a patent attorney, due to the technical and scientific knowledge required to understand often complex subject matter as part of the job. Honours degrees in subjects including physics, electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and biological sciences are sound choices. For life sciences and chemistry-biased roles in the profession, a PhD is often required as well.

A minimum of a 2:1 degree and high A level grades are also required to even be considered by many firms; I’d argue that you ideally require a first class honours degree from a ‘redbrick’ university to stand a better chance of even being invited to interview.

Legal skills

A career in IP is not all about science: patent attorneys are an integral part of the legal sector and are specialists in IP law, so you should also possess an aptitude for structuring an argument, be persuasive, and possess a keen eye for detail.

Interpersonal skills are also highly valued in the profession, owing to a high degree of client contact compared to ten years ago. That said, I’ve interviewed some exceptionally bright attorneys over the past few years who, by their own admission, don’t enjoy confrontation. That’s fine, but they are unlikely to advance their careers as quickly as their peers.

Commercial awareness is another much sought-after skill set in IP, as the demands of clients that range from UK-based SMEs to global organisations become increasingly challenging. Patent attorneys are required to understand the commercial objectives of clients large or small, so an ability to provide legal and strategic advice is part and parcel of the profession these days.

Business development skills are also essential if you want to build a client base under your own name, and this can often pave the way to career advancement within a firm as your individual revenue stream grows.

The demand for new entrants to the profession is high at the moment. Encouragingly, the ‘employers of choice’ in the private practice sector tend to recruit new trainees each and every year, but numbers can vary from firm to firm, and office to office. As a general guideline, a tier 1 firm could recruit up to six to eight new trainees each year. Smaller firms are more likely to recruit half this figure.

IP is big business, and a fantastic career choice for aspiring science graduates. The future of the profession is very much linked to the development of IP legislation, not only in the UK but increasingly in Europe, the United States, Asia, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The world recognises the strength of the UK profession, and the status of chartered patent attorneys is held in the highest regard.

If you’re the type of person who is passionate about new technologies, has a naturally inquisitive and intelligent mind, and you possess some commercial nous, then IP could well be the career choice to match your ambitions. It’s a bit of a myth that the profession only attracts geeks and academic heavyweights, as there are hundreds of hard-working, down to earth, funny, and incredibly friendly IP professionals across the UK, several of whom I’ve helped with their respective careers. I can’t imagine recruiting and advising a nicer bunch of people, truth be told.

James Dawes is an executive recruiter in intellectual property at Aspire

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