Consider a career as a patent attorney if you have a scientific background, an interest in the law and the drive to succeed in this highly competitive industry

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'll 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.

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 £30,000, rising to £37,000 when part-qualified (or £36,000 to £45,000 when moving firms).
  • As a newly qualified patent attorney your salary will be around £53,300 (£60,000 to £65,000 when moving firms), rising to around £68,700 after two or three years (£70,000 to £80,000 when moving firms).
  • Qualified attorneys with around five years' experience can earn around £77,300 (£80,000 to £100,000 when moving firms). This rises to well in excess of £100,000 for those at salaried partner level, whereas an equity partner could earn anywhere between £150,000 and £500,000.

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

Following qualification, the highest salaries are sometimes to be found working in-house for a company. However, at partner level, salaries in private practice are far greater than in industry and it would be at partner level that you would spend the greatest portion of your career. Attorneys frequently take a pay cut to move from industry into private practice, just before partnership, for the longer-term benefits available.

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

Income data from Fellows and Associates Annual Salary Survey. 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'll need to work well independently, 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.
  • You'll need to be comfortable working to tight 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 can be challenging. Competition is particularly fierce 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. You may also have to visit court, the IPO and the 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. It's possible to become a trainee patent attorney after pursuing a different career post-degree.

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 UK Register of Patent Attorneys, held by the Intellectual Property Regulation Board (IPReg). Most firms will also expect you to qualify as a European patent attorney. The European register is held by the EPO.

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 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).

There are four final examinations, which test your knowledge of intellectual property laws, your skills in drafting and amending patent applications, and how well you assess a patent's validity. For full details of how you'll be assessed, See IPReg - Rules for the Examination and Admission of Individuals.

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 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.

Skills

You'll 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
  • time management skills
  • 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
  • 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:

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

Professional development

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, as well as seminars to help develop your business skills when running a practice and other activities such as 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.

Career prospects

Once qualified, the usual route in private practice is to go 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 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. Alternatively, you could choose to develop your career by becoming a patent examiner working for the IPO, examining patent applications from the other side.