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, patent attorneys 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 UK Register of Patent Attorneys. Most patent attorneys are chartered patent attorneys and European patent attorneys, and some are also registered trade mark attorneys.
Types of patent attorney
Areas of expertise include:
Tasks vary to a certain extent depending on whether you're working in private practice, advising private clients, or working for a large organisation in industry to protect their inventions. However, you'll typically need to:
- carry out invention harvesting as part of a group in order to come up with a set of possible new inventive ideas
- 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 technical descriptions of inventions in precise legal terms (patent drafts) to meet the correct legal standards
- 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
- advise clients on how much their patent could be worth
- 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.
- As a trainee patent attorney you can earn in the region of £27,000 to £36,000. This rises as you become part-qualified.
- As a newly qualified chartered patent attorney (CPA) or European patent attorney (EPA), your salary could range from £61,000 to £72,000. If you are qualified as both a CPA and EPA, your salary could be around £68,000 to £79,000.
- CPAs and EPAs with up to four years' experience can earn between £68,000 and £96,000, rising to £87,500 plus after five years.
- At partner, director or head of patents level, you could earn in excess of £98,000.
Salaries vary depending on a range of factors, such as your experience, area of expertise, type of employment (inhouse/industry or private practice), and whether you are qualified as a CPA, or as both a CPA and EPA.
Additional benefits include bonuses, the payment of membership subscriptions, healthcare, life insurance and a pension.
Income data from the annual Dawn Ellmore Employment Salary Guide.
An in-depth breakdown of salaries is also available via the Fellows and Associates Annual Salary Survey. It also focuses on the working environment and workplace trends.
Figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work office hours, typically Monday to Friday, nine to five, but you may need to work extra hours to meet deadlines.
Flexible and/or hybrid working may be available.
What to expect
- Work is usually office based, although you may need to visit clients who wish to patent a product or process that is easier to demonstrate on site. You may also have to visit court, the IPO and the EPO.
- You'll need to be comfortable working to tight deadlines and dealing with several different patent applications for more than one client at the same time (private practice) or managing a portfolio of inventions (in-house).
- Jobs are available throughout the UK.
- This is a relatively small profession with over 2,000 patent attorneys in the UK. There are excellent career prospects, but getting into the profession as a new trainee can be competitive.
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 largely takes place on the job and includes self-directed study, in-house support and guidance, and external training courses.
There are two parts to the qualification process and you must successfully complete both in order to be accepted on to the UK Register of Patent Attorneys, held by the Intellectual Property Regulation Board (IPReg).
The UK 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 IPReg-accredited Foundation Certificate examinations provided by the Patent Examination Board (PEB) or
- an IPReg-accredited Postgraduate Intellectual Property Certificate course, currently provided by Bournemouth University, Brunel University and Queen Mary, University of London.
This is followed by the Final Diploma examinations, which test your knowledge of intellectual property law, your skills in drafting and amending patent applications, and how well you assess a patent's validity.
As well as completing a qualifying course, you must also undertake either two years' supervised full-time practice or not less than four years unsupervised full-time practice in intellectual property, with substantial experience of patent attorney work. If you're undertaking two years of supervised practice, this must be done by a UK patent attorney or a solicitor or barrister who has substantial experience of patent attorney work.
For full details of how you'll be assessed, see IPReg - Admission to the Register.
Most firms will also expect you to qualify as a European patent attorney. The European register is held by the EPO. To qualify as a European patent attorney, 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 before the European Patent Office (EPI).
In practice, it usually takes around four to six years to qualify as both a UK and European patent attorney.
For more information, see Careers in Ideas.
You'll need to have:
- an understanding of scientific and technological principles and processes in order to understand the invention yourself and be able to explain it to others
- communication skills, particularly written skills, in order to convince the IPO that a patent should be granted
- analytical and problem-solving skills
- the ability to express complex technical ideas clearly and concisely
- attention to detail
- interpersonal skills for dealing with clients
- the ability to structure a precise, coherent argument
- confidence and tenacity
- a willingness to get to grips with legal and commercial arguments
- analytical and advocacy skills
- self-motivation and the ability to manage your own workload
- time management skills
- a readiness to take responsibility
- teamworking skills and a collaborative approach to work
- an understanding of the commercial requirements of patent attorney work.
A working knowledge of French and German is also useful as these, along with English, are the official languages of the EPO. An understanding of Japanese and Chinese is also useful due to the international nature of patent work. You'll also need an aptitude for the law, which is usually gained while training.
Getting relevant work experience with patent firms is challenging due to the confidential nature of the work. Although opportunities are rare, Easter and summer internships lasting one to two weeks do exist. These internships will give you the opportunity to find out more about the role.
Some firms provide an insight day or week to undergraduates interested in a career in IP. These sessions usually focus on the company itself but are a good way of finding out about how a particular firm works and shows your interest in the profession.
If you're unable to get experience with a patent firm, look for work experience that allows you to develop your communication, reasoning, attention to detail and analytical skills as these are key skills that patent firms look for.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
Patent attorneys are typically employed by:
- specialist law firms in private practice
- the law/intellectual property departments of large industrial companies (in-house or corporate positions).
In-house jobs are less common, however, and most patent attorneys work in private practice.
Although the core skills you need for both jobs are more or less the same, the jobs themselves can be very different. For example, if you work in private practice, you will often focus on customer service, meeting deadlines and business development. However, in industrial, in-house roles you're more likely to be involved in managing a portfolio, decision making and networking internally.
Also, when working in private practice you'll be working for a range of clients represented by the law firm, while in industry, you'll have the one employer and will need to make decisions based on the needs of the company as a whole.
Most private practices have websites where you can find out more about the size of the firm and whether they cover any areas of special interest. Clients in private practice can include:
- large companies
- start-up companies
- universities and research organisations.
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.
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).
It's possible to move between different types of employer during your career.
Look for job vacancies at:
Search the IP Careers Directory of Employers for a list of patent firms. The directory provides employer profiles and details of vacancies for trainee and qualified attorneys.
Once qualified, you must complete 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 CIPA and other relevant organisations
- attending seminars to help develop your business skills when running a practice
- teaching work, examining and tutoring.
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.
Once qualified, the usual route in private practice is to gain experience before going on to become a partner of a 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'll still be expected to make a significant contribution towards patent work.
In industry (in-house/corporate roles), the usual route for progression is from trainee to qualified patent attorney and then to head of department if there is an opening. You may spend a lot of your time carrying out the same tasks, such as invention harvesting, drafting patents, prosecuting patent infringements and enforcing patents, but with different inventions.
It's also possible to become a self-employed patent attorney, either taking on freelance work or setting up your own patent agency. Alternatively, you could choose to develop your career by becoming a patent examiner working for the IPO, examining patent applications from the other side.