If you have a good degree in a science or engineering subject and an interest in the law, a career as a patent attorney may be for you

As a patent attorney you'll assess whether inventions are new and innovative and therefore eligible to be patented.

Specially trained in drafting patents and with knowledge of intellectual property law, you will lead individual inventors or companies through the required process to obtain a patent and then act to enforce inventors' rights if patents are infringed.

Patents are granted by the government and give inventors the right to prevent other parties from using or copying their invention for up to 20 years.

You can only use the title 'patent attorney' once you're qualified and entered on the Register of Patent Attorneys. Most patent attorneys are also chartered patent attorneys and European patent attorneys, and some are also registered trade mark attorneys.

Responsibilities

These will depend, to some extent, on whether you're advising private clients or employed by a large organisation to protect their products. However, you'll typically need to:

  • discuss inventions and processes with inventors or manufacturers and ascertain whether they're likely to succeed in being granted patents;
  • analyse scientific or technical documents, including previously granted patents, to assess whether an invention is new and innovative;
  • write detailed descriptions of inventions in precise legal terms (patent drafts);
  • suggest modifications or extensions to the definition of the invention;
  • apply for patents from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and the European Patent Office (EPO);
  • prepare responses to reports from patent examiners;
  • ensure application and renewal deadlines are met;
  • work with solicitors and barristers to defend or enforce UK patents;
  • conduct litigation in proceedings at the EPO or in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC);
  • advise overseas attorneys on applications for foreign patent applications;
  • instruct on whether business activities will infringe someone else's patent rights;
  • deal with assignments of patent when a patent is sold or transferred;
  • keep up to date with legal developments in the intellectual property field;
  • advise on other intellectual property rights, e.g. designs or trade marks;
  • tutor and mentor trainee patent attorneys.

Salary

  • As a trainee patent attorney you can earn in the region of £28,400, rising to £34,400 when part-qualified (or £36,000 to £45,000 when moving firms).
  • As a newly qualified patent attorney your salary will be around £48,300 (£60,000 to £65,000 when moving firms), rising to around £66,700 after two or three years (£70,000 to £80,000 when moving firms).
  • Qualified attorneys with around five years' experience can earn around £75,300 (£80,000 to £100,000 when moving firms), rising to well in excess of £100,000 for those at partner level.

Regional salaries are broadly the same as those within the London area.

Following qualification, the highest salaries are to be found working in-house for a company. However, at partner level salaries in private practice are greater than in industry.

Additional benefits include the payment of membership subscriptions, healthcare and life insurance and a pension.

Income data from Inside Careers Guide to Chartered Patent Attorneys. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Generally, hours are Monday to Friday, nine to five, but you'll need to work extra hours to meet deadlines.

What to expect

  • You need to feel comfortable with working on your own, particularly in private practice, although colleagues will be available to give advice. You're more likely to be part of a team working in industry.
  • The work can involve a lot of pressure, which may be created by inflexible deadlines and working on several different patent applications for more than one client at the same time.
  • This is a small profession with excellent career prospects, but getting into the profession as a new trainee is challenging. Competition is particularly fierce for posts in London and it may be worth applying for regional positions.
  • Work is usually office based although travelling to meet clients is common as they may wish to patent a product or process which is easier to demonstrate on site. There may also be visits to court and to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and the European Patent Office (EPO).

Qualifications

You'll usually need a degree (at least a 2:1) in a science, engineering, technical or mathematics-based subject to get a job as a trainee patent attorney.

Training takes place on the job and includes self-directed study, in-house support and guidance, and external training courses. You'll need to complete a minimum period of training and successfully pass professional examinations in order to be accepted on to the Register of Patent Attorneys. The UK register is held by the Intellectual Property Regulation Board (IPReg).

The qualification route you take will probably depend on your employer's preference and is divided into two levels: foundation and final. At foundation level you can complete either the five Patent Examination Board (PEB) Foundation Examinations or one of the IPReg-approved courses (currently provided by Bournemouth University, Brunel University and Queen Mary, University of London). See the IPReg website for full details of the rules for examinations and admissions. In practice, it usually takes around four to six years to qualify.

Although a postgraduate qualification isn't essential, a significant proportion of patent attorneys have a PhD.

Many patent attorneys also qualify as European patent attorneys by taking examinations set by the European Patent Office (EPO). You'll need to complete three years' training under the supervision of a European patent attorney and take a pre-examination before taking the European qualifying examination. You can then become a member of the Institute of Professional Representatives (EPI).

Skills

You will need to have:

  • an understanding of scientific and technological principles and processes;
  • excellent written and oral communication skills;
  • the ability to express complex technical ideas clearly and concisely;
  • an eye for detail and an analytical mind;
  • the ability to structure a precise, coherent argument;
  • confidence and tenacity;
  • a willingness to get to grips with legal and commercial arguments;
  • the ability to work with a wide variety of people;
  • self-motivation and the ability to manage your own workload;
  • a readiness to take responsibility.

A working knowledge of French and German is also useful as these, along with English, are the official languages of the EPO. Knowledge of Japanese and Chinese may also be an advantage.

Employers

There are two main groups of employers: private practice partnerships and large industrial employers.

Most private partnerships have websites where you can find out more about the size of the firm and whether they cover any areas of special interest.

Industrial employers include manufacturers of every kind of product, from food to heavy industrial processing equipment, and from biotechnology to the automotive industry. Patent attorneys will work on any patent issues relating to the products that these employers produce.

Large, industrial organisations may not provide much specialist recruitment information about patent work, so you may have to look harder for openings.

There are some opportunities to work overseas in other English-speaking countries and many UK-based private practices also have small offices in Europe.

A small number of patent attorneys are employed by government departments such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Look for job vacancies at:

Technical and legal specialist recruitment agencies, such as Dawn Ellmore Employment, handle patent attorney vacancies for those who are part or fully qualified and registered.

CIPA provides a useful contact list of patent attorney firms and patent departments within organisations to help with speculative applications.

Professional development

Once qualified, you must do a certain amount of continuing professional development (CPD) every year. This can include attending seminars and webinars on particular areas of patent work and intellectual property law run by the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and other relevant organisations, as well as seminars to help develop your business skills when running a practice, and other activities such as teaching work, examining and tutoring. You can also develop specific areas of expertise appropriate to the practice you work in.

It's important to keep up to date with developments in patent law in the UK and overseas through reading the specialist press such as the CIPA Journal.

Most patent attorneys go on to become Fellows of CIPA, which allows you to use the title of Chartered Patent Attorney.

Depending on your employer's needs, you may also take the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA) examinations to become a registered trade mark attorney.

Career prospects

Once qualified, the usual route in private practice is to go on to become a partner of the firm. There may be an intermediary 'associate' step before partnership in some firms.

You may decide to specialise in a certain area of patents, such as chemical patents, or choose to spend time helping the firm expand and develop. However, you will still be expected to make a significant contribution towards patent work.

In large companies, the usual route for progression is to a managerial position. This may mean you spend less time on actual patent work and more time guiding and advising colleagues, dealing with personnel matters and budget issues.

It's also possible to become a self-employed patent attorney, either taking on freelance work or setting up your own patent agency, or you could choose to develop your career by becoming a patent examiner working for the IPO, examining patent applications from the other side.