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When Dehns, a leading European patent and trademark firm, interviews job candidates, it often asks them to describe in words an object such as a lemon squeezer or a stapler. While this might seem an unusual interview question, it is not the only way in which becoming a patent attorney differs from entering other areas of legal practice.
The test, says Polly Shaw, head of human resources at the firm, is for applicants with an engineering background and is designed to assess how they describe the way an object moves and operates — an essential skill for anyone working in the business of identifying and protecting ideas and inventions.
“We’re not expecting them to write something to the standard of one of our patent attorneys,” she explains. “It’s about how someone uses language to describe and differentiate something.”
Before they even reach the interview stage, however, aspiring patent attorneys will need an entirely different set of credentials from other legal candidates. These do not include a law degree.
Instead, they must have scientific or engineering qualifications that will enable them to understand the patent applications landing on their desk.
“A bachelors degree is not sufficient,” says Eva Dörner, a partner at Maiwald, a German intellectual property firm. “You usually need at least a masters and some practical expertise in a scientific field, which is usually the PhD.”
Ms Dörner’s background is indicative of the kind of qualifications and experience most patent attorneys must acquire. A scientist by training with a PhD, she spent two years studying patent law. Ms Dörner’s expertise is in organic chemistry and synthesis, and she now works mainly in pharmaceutical and plant protection.
This level of specialisation is essential if patent attorneys are to support their clients, whether they be individual inventors or research and development teams at large companies.
“Clients rely on their patent attorney to help them understand what’s innovative and what might be patentable — that is, what hasn’t been done before,” says Jonathan Clarke, director of human resources at London-based patent and trademark attorneys Kilburn & Strode. “A scientist can look at a technical drawing and help [clients] understand what its unique features are.”
This means that for an aspiring patent attorney, legal qualifications are acquired later, usually on the job over the course of several years.
Patent attorneys in Europe, for example, must pass the European qualifying examination, known as EQE, along with the relevant exam for the jurisdictions in which they will work — for example, the Patent Examination Board qualifying examinations in the UK.
Given the high levels cost of professional development for employees, attracting talent from outside is harder than it is for many law firms. “It’s difficult to hire lateral qualified attorneys,” says Mr Clarke. “They tend to stay at the firm that has trained them because of the huge amount of investment.”
That means patent firms have to focus on retaining the graduates they recruit. “Quality of training is paramount,” says Ms Shaw. “It’s about having a career path clearly set out in terms of what people need to do to progress.”
Building a broad and diverse portfolio of clients also helps with retention. “That’s important,” says Mr Clarke, “because they want to be working on the most innovative, interesting things.”
The difficulty of hiring staff from other firms also means investing time and money in graduate recruitment. Most firms recruit heavily from universities, particularly those focused on Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines.
This is already a highly competitive exercise but patent law firms face added difficulties in the talent wars, particularly when targeting people with a physical science or information technology background — a pool of potential recruits who can choose from plenty of other attractive and lucrative options.
“You’re competing for graduates but you’re offering them something that looks like a relatively hard career path,” says Andrea Brewster, a patent attorney who leads IP Inclusive, a network of intellectual property professionals that promotes equality, diversity and inclusion in the sector.
An additional hurdle is that many graduates are unaware that patent attorneys exist. “We find ourselves having to do a lot of education when we go on campus every year,” says Mr Clarke.
To change this and to broaden diversity, IP Inclusive created the Careers in Ideas website, which hosts information and case studies for anyone considering the field of intellectual property, as well as for teachers, career advisers and parents.
Ms Brewster believes that once more people become aware of the profession and what it involves, it will appeal to a generation of graduates who want to be part of the business of innovation. “You’re working with some of the best and brightest people in the country,” she says. “Life will never be dull.”
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