How to become a Patent Attorney (UK/EU)
A few years ago, I was a coming to the end of my Physics degree. It was time to choose a career. After much research, I became interested in patent law and looked to join one of the many prestigious IP law firms. The next question was then, how?
Unlike the well-trodden paths to high finance and corporate law, securing a role as a trainee patent attorney was altogether lesser-known.
Firstly, there’s a lot of incorrect advice floating about. Secondly, much of the advice relates to the US profession, which has little similarity to the UK/EU process. Thirdly, whilst there is a lot of general information such as the brilliant Insider Career’s guide, there’s a notable absence of highly specific advice- after reading it, I still felt uncertain on how to navigate the interview process and had many questions that were left unanswered.
Questions that can only be answered by someone intimately familiar with the process.
Like, will the lack of a PhD put me at a disadvantage? What are the types of questions that I’ll encounter? Do I really need to know how to describe office stationary? How should I actually approach answering these questions?
Only after stumbling through many interviews and learning lessons the hard way through countless rejections was I able to understand what was actually needed to excel in the interview process and finally gain a coveted traineeship position at a Tier 1 patent firm.
It would have been much easier (and quicker) if someone had given me specific, actionable advice on how to approach the journey.
So in this guide, I’ll go through exactly what, as an actual Insider, I’d wish I’d known before applying to become a trainee patent attorney.
Note that this guide contains my experiences- your specific experiences may differ but the general principles should still apply.
This guide isn’t for those who aren’t sure what a trainee patent attorney is or whether they should become one- I’m assuming that you most definitely want to secure a traineeship and already know the basics.
Patent law is a highly academic profession.
The most important requirement is that you need a degree in a STEM subject. Anything equal to or above a 2:1 is sufficient. Anything below this and there’s a high chance your application may be screened out before being considered.
In this case, I would inform the prospective firm of any mitigating circumstances in the cover letter. This may help get your application through the initial screening stage and potentially get you invited for an interview, especially if there are other parts of your application that impress.
Nearly all patent firms split recruitment and practice into two streams- Engineering/Computer Science and Biological sciences.
If you’re looking for a traineeship in the former, a bachelor’s or master’s degree is sufficient. Although it’s very common to see people with PhD’s, this seems to be more of a coincidence rather than a hard requirement- many PhDs who end up leaving academia are attracted to the profession since it lets them escape the harsh realities of researcher life whilst still staying close to their field of study. I’ve only got a bachelor’s degree and I’ve never felt that this was a barrier, both while interviewing or on the job.
For trainees with a biological sciences background, it seems to be a much more stringent requirement to have a PhD. In fact, in my recruitment cohort, every single trainee in biological sciences had a PhD. If you only have a masters or below, I would reach out to individual firms and ask them to clarify their position before applying- you might find individual firms to be more flexible.
Unlike in the U.S., a law degree is absolutely not required.
Some applicants also try to go above and beyond by trying to complete additional legal qualifications such as a certificate in IP law and learning new languages before applying. Doing these for interest is fine. But doing them solely to stand out is most definitely a waste of time.
Focus on nailing the basics and ignore the rest.
For your initial application, you’ll likely have to write a cover letter.
The most important thing here is to have a narrative. Share your story. Recruiters want to know why you want to be a patent attorney out of all the possible of careers.
It’s best to provide examples of how your experiences helped you learn skills that are pertinent to patent attorney practice. For example,
Since attending a range of open days such as at Marks & Clerk and Mewburn Ellis, it has convinced me that I am interested in pursuing a career in patent law. Representing Acme LLP this year as campus ambassador, has given me exposure to a variety of contacts within the legal sector. In particular, engaging with trainees and associates has given me an insight into the confident, proactive approach required to succeed in the legal profession.
Is it that that you enjoy writing about technical topics? That you didn’t like hands on research but loved writing your thesis? Is there anything particular about this firm that you like?
Entrance onto the Acme LLP trainee patent attorney programme would allow me to contribute to such work in an established, prestigious firm, renowned for its world-leading IP expertise and ability to respond creatively to client challenges, as highlighted by being consistently named as a Tier 1 practice by The Legal 500. A diverse range of clients, ranging from GSK to 3M, ensures opportunities to practice across a breadth of technologies and industries.
And check your spelling and grammar!
Initial Phone/Video Screen
Assuming you pass the initial application screen, you’ll probably be invited to a first stage HR phone or video interview.
The majority of these interviews are conducted by non-technical individuals such as a recruiter, so you can expect competency-based questions.
Some specific questions that I’ve been asked include:
- Tell us a little bit about yourself.
- Why do you want to be a patent attorney?
- What is one of your weaknesses?
- Do you know the path to becoming a trainee patent attorney? Are you aware of the number of exams involved?
- Explain a situation where you had conflict with someone and how did you resolve it
- Explain your dissertation/thesis to a layperson
On occasion, you may get a technical question. This usually asks you to describe how some technology works. For example, I was asked to describe how a refrigerator works. Since these questions also come up a lot more often in the in-person stages, I’ll explain how to answer these questions below.
After passing the HR phone/video screen, you’ll progress to an in-person interview stage. This stage is nearly always led by a couple of senior patent attorneys. As a result, it’s nearly always technical in nature.
During my time interviewing, I came across many different interviewing formats, some more common than others. I’ll go through each format I’ve encountered and how common it was.
Patent Analysis (Very Common)
In this format of interview, you’re given a patent to analyse along with some prior art. The documents may be given to you before the interview or during the interview as part of a timed activity.
You’re then asked to understand the invention in preparation to be questioned on it. This may sound vague but from experience, these interviews always follow a very predictable pattern.
Here’s what you should do.
1) Write a summary of each invention
The first question you are likely to be asked in the interview is to summarise each invention so you should be prepared to answer this.
To start with, read through the primary patent and prior art. Then write a summary of the invention. During my interviews, I used the following structure.
Start with outlining what the object of the invention is. What problem is the invention trying to solve and why does this problem exist? For example,
During the fabrication of semiconductor devices, it is commonly required for thin film conductors to be deposited on a given substrate. The thin film can then be etched. However, these etchings can cause the bond between the thin film and the substrate to become loose which will cause the device to fail. So a strong level of adhesion is needed between the film and the substrate to avoid this. The object of the present invention and the prior art is thus to gain insight into this adhesion strength.
Following this, explain how the invention actually solves the problem. How is it implemented? How does the invention technically e.g. mechanically/electrically etc. achieve the required effect to solve the problem?
This is easier than it sounds. The majority of patents are complete with labelled figures- a great way to explain a invention is by talking through the figure using the labels. In other words, simply summarising the description section of the patent is usually enough.
I’ll use the diagram on the front page to describe the operation of this invention. We see that the thin film conductor, labelled 102, has been deposited on a substrate, 104. And we want to test the adhesion strength between this thin film conductor and the substrate. To do this, the adhesion tester, labelled 101, comprises of a conducting portion, labelled 110, and two ceramic supports, labelled 210, where the conducting portion lies between them such that when the adhesion tester is placed on the thin film conductor, the ceramic supports are in direct contact with the thin film, but the conducting portion critically does not contact the thin film and leaves a small gap between the filled with some dielectric, labelled 230, which could be air for example.
2) Find the main difference(s) between the invention and the prior art document
Once you’ve summarised the inventions, you should have a good grasp of the problem they solve and how they solve it.
The next question you’re likely to be asked is to explain the differences between the invention and the prior art document. Whilst both inventions may be solving the same problem, they’ll likely be solving them in slightly different ways.
The key is to find this difference in implementation and what advantage this distinguishing feature gives the invention over the prior art.
One key difference between the present invention and the prior document is that the prior art invention uses a mechanical pulling arm to stress the thin film being tested. This requires direct contact with the thin film. In comparison, the present invention uses a fixed conducting plate, where there is a distinct gap between the conducting plate and the thin film. The presence of the pulling arm also adds complexity and cost to the invention.
There may be one or more differences so keep an eye out. At first glance, it may seem that both inventions look the same. But look closer- for an interview, it’s likely that there is at least one significant difference to discuss.
But keep in mind that these differences should be technical in nature and have some sort of technical advantage- don’t mention trivial differences like colour or size unless they provide some technical benefit.
3) Determine whether the claim needs amending and if so, how
One of the defining features of a patent is the claims section. The claims define the scope of protection of the patent. If the features of the prior art are described by any portion of the independent claims of the primary patent, then the invention is not novel.
The aim here is to look over the claims of the primary invention and see if contain the distinguishing feature(s) you identified in the previous section. If they’re not, the claims should be amended so that they include these features, making the patent novel.
Here’s an example of what I would say:
In the first sub-claim, we emphasise that there is a gap between the conducting plate and the thin film conductor. We say that instead of the potential difference creating an electric field between the thin film conductor and the conducting portion, we say that the potential difference creates an electric field across the gap between the thin film conductor and the conducting portion We say that the gap provides a space into which the thin film conductor can be displaced under the action of the electric field when the stress induced by the electric field is large enough to cause delamination of the thin film conductor.
So to repeat:
- Write a summary of each invention
- Find the main difference(s) between the invention and the prior art document
- Determine whether the claim needs amending and if so, how
Description of Invention (Very Common)
The second common interview format is where you’re asked to describe an invention. This invention is usually something which most people are very familiar with. During my interview, these ranged from a stapler to a refrigerator.
When asked to describe a particular invention or instrument, start with explaining what the invention consists of i.e. the individual elements. Then, explain how these individual elements are configured i.e. how do they come together to achieve the desired operation. If asked to compare an invention to prior art, explain what elements(s) causes the prior art to be limited and how a different element or configuration of elements i.e. distinguishing in the current invention is an improvement.
I found that the best way to prepare for these questions is to practice describing a list of common inventions.
For example, here’s one I wrote describing a pair of scissors
A pair of scissors includes two blades, pivoted together at a central fulcrum, each blade having a looped handle unit at one end and a cutting unit at the opposite end, whereby the blades are pivoted together such that the sharpened edges slide against each other when the said handles are closed, distinct from cutting pliers which instead have pivoted jaws that provide a gripping action upon closing the handles instead of the shearing action from scissor blades.
If you’re short on time, here are some of the ones I’ve prepared.
Alongside the two most common interview formats described above, I also encountered a few other interview formats that were usually specific to a given firm. These included:
- Online spelling and grammar test
- Presentation on a technical topic of your choice
- Write an letter expressing your discontent over an erroneous gas meter reading
For most of these, there’s usually no need to do any special preparation up front. I simply list these here so you know they may come up.
At first glance, the journey to securing a trainee role can seem challenging and unfamiliar. But with a little practice and familiarity with common interview patterns, it can become a lot easier.
Even then, it can take several interviews to grasp what firms are looking for. Don’t lose hope in the face of the rejection. I had to do many interviews- eventually you get lucky. some questions are repeated, you start to spot patterns. There’s a large element of luck. Just focus on what you can control.
I wish you the best of luck.