From academia to patents – a career path to becoming a patent attorney

Camille Terfve spoke to EMBL Careers about what it takes to become a patent attorney. This was originally published on the EMBL Careers blog and is republished below.

Do you love arguing about science? Then a career in patent law might be the right match for you.

There are a lot of myths about the knowledge and skills needed to become a successful patent attorney, and not many PhDs and postdocs know that it is a profession where you can only get into if you are a scientist. We recently spoke to EMBL alum and bioinformatician Camille Terfve about what it takes to become a patent attorney. Scientific curiosity, attention to detail and writing skills are the perfect combo, but you will also need a bit of spare energy to study again!

The legal world seems quite different from the academic scientific one. How did you move from academia to patent law and what did attract you to it?

When I finished my PhD, I was looking for something different from research. I enjoyed my time in academia, but I just did not want to keep doing that in the long term. What I enjoyed the most during my PhD was writing up my thesis, so I thought I should do something that takes advantage of the fact that I know how to write well, plus I enjoy it. Then I did some research into career options where good writing skills were an asset and found patent law.

Patent law is all about writing and arguing about science. It is very similar to writing a scientific paper or thesis, and it is a profession you can only get into if you have a science degree. Every patent attorney is a scientist to start with, and it is a profession that requires both science skills and some legal knowledge. However, the expectation is you come into the role with the scientific knowledge and then the legal one you get taught on the job. You do not have to have any legal background, really what many people do not know is that what matters the most is the scientific background. The reason for that is most of what we do as patent attorneys is explaining how science and inventions work. Thus, you have to understand the science as well as possible at the core.

What were the main challenges you faced when transitioning to patent law?

The obvious challenge is that you have to learn the legal aspect. That kind of means going back to being a student and feeling comfortable with knowing very little about anything at the beginning. That takes some proper resilience and some kind of humility to accept that you have a lot to learn. But actually, I think that most researchers have those skills because we are used to facing so many setbacks with our research projects.

The way that it works is that when you start working, you have a few years of training where you sit some exams, study and learn the law until you get qualified. Typically, it takes about four or five years to qualify and during those first years, you are constantly learning. This is on top of the job, so as you can imagine the first years in patent law are quite intense but also incredibly rewarding. Seeing yourself getting better and better at the job is very satisfying. You also meet colleagues going through the same process and like in academia, you bond with them and it can be really fun. Of course, during that time you have no real legal responsibility.  You are expected to learn and make mistakes and someone will check after you. That’s quite nice!

Can you tell us a bit more about how you get qualified and if those exams are country-specific?

Typically, in most European countries, you will have a local qualification for the country where you work. Then, there is a European qualification which allows you to represent clients at the European Patent Office and work anywhere in Europe. In general, you will have to do both qualifications and sit both sets of exams.

For the European qualification, you are only allowed to start sitting them when you have worked as a trainee patent attorney for two years. There is one exam in the first year and once you pass this, then the next year you can sit a set of four exams. You can also sit those exams over multiple years if you want. If you pass all four, then you are done. That is for Europe, quite simple.

At the regional level, it depends on the country. For example, in the UK there is the first set of exams that you can sit typically at the end of your first year in the job. Alternatively, you can take a university course that takes a trimester. Then, the second set of exams that you sit is typically a year later. In total, it takes about three years for the UK and four years for Europe. In Germany, they have something slightly different and they have to spend a little bit of time at the German patent office to understand what they do before qualifying.

In a nutshell, to get qualified you need to pass a set of exams. Patent law firms provide in-house courses where other attorneys teach you how to sit the exams, and you also attend training with external providers to learn it all. This part of the training feels like going back to being a student.

There is also the figure of patent examiners. How does this compare to patent attorneys?

A patent attorney is someone like me who works for a client and who writes patent applications for them and then explains to patent examiners why the invention is patentable.

A patent examiner is someone who works at the patent office, and not for a client. What they do is they look at the patent applications that attorneys submit and they decide whether the invention meets all the requirements to get a patent. They also have to be scientists.

How can you get a foot in the door for these roles?

For both cases, it is all about applying directly either to a patent office – if you want to be a patent examiner – or to a patent firm if you are more interested in becoming a patent attorney. For patent firms, you are not expected to have any legal knowledge, but it is important to understand in advance what a patent attorney job is about, what the role entails and why you would be good at doing it.

Most patent firms will recruit trainees through advertisements on their websites. The bigger firms will typically recruit at a certain time of year so that they can recruit everybody at the same time. That is usually between November to February, and they can recruit for starting immediately or by the following September. At Mewburn Ellis, we do have a Graduate Training Programme that opens every year in October with opportunities to get started in the Bioinformatics and Life Sciences fields, among others.

In general, if you get selected for a job interview in a patent firm, you will sit some interviews where they will try to check if you have the right way of thinking to work in patents. For example, they might ask you to think about an object and describe why that object is an invention compared to what existed before. Why is it clever? How does it work? You should describe it in a way that captures that “clever” aspect. Another thing they might check is whether you can describe an object in a way that someone who has not seen it can picture it in their head. A patent is a description of an invention and you have to describe it in a way that explains what it is, but also in a way that reflects what is clever about it. In an interview, you will likely be tested on both of these aspects: can you describe an object in a way that someone who does not have the object in front of them can picture it in their mind, and can you capture the core of what is clever about that object in one or two sentences.

What is the skill set that an ideal patent attorney should have? How do you market yourself in patent law?

You have to be interested in science and be curious because the main fun of the job is getting to see so much, very interesting science. And if you have that curiosity, then it will keep you going through the hard times. You also have to have attention to detail, that is a key one. It sounds obvious because everybody says that in every job interview, but for this job it is very important. In that sense that relates to how you market yourself: make sure that your CV and cover letter do not have any typos. This is so important in this job, everything has to be accurate, with no inconsistencies and no typos. Typos are a very easy way to screen out people who might be otherwise really talented. Another quite relevant skill is knowing how to prioritize and juggle multiple things at the same time. So, there is curiosity, attention to detail, being able to prioritise and also enjoying and being good at writing. You should be good at expressing yourself concisely and clearly, similar to when you write a scientific paper. Every word has to have a purpose. For a job interview be sure to emphasize those four skills, show enthusiasm about science and spend some time thinking about why you want to do this job.

Are the inventions that you work on related to your scientific background?

In my case yes, they are directly related to my background. You can be more generalist if that is what you want but it depends on where you work and who you work with. You usually try at least to work on subject-matter that is somewhat related to your background because then you will be better at it. In any case, you will not be working only on projects related to your exact PhD topic forever. For example, I did my PhD in bioinformatics, and most of my work is within this field. Not all of it is about analysing mass spectrometry data, which is what my PhD was about, but all of it is bioinformatics. Thus, within that kind of breath, you are quite likely to work with your background.

How does a normal working day looks like for you?

A typical day starts with reading my emails. Being a patent attorney is a deadline-driven job. We get lots of things we have to do before certain deadlines, for legal reasons and client requirements. It is not like a PhD where you know that your main deadline is four years down the line. It is very much like, what do I have to do today? What is due by tomorrow? What is due by the end of the week? You begin with reading your emails, and then you figure out your deadlines for the day or the next few days and make priorities. Once that is done, I reply to emails to my clients, which is a lot of the job as well. Read the emails and reply to them can take most of my morning some days. Then I tackle other tasks.

A major task is writing patents applications and prosecuting patent applications. The first one is essentially putting the patent application together and prosecution is where you argue with the patent office to explain why an invention is new and inventive, and negotiate the scope with the patent office that they are happy to grant a patent for. A lot of this time is spent sitting down at the computer reading papers and writing letters to the patent office, so it is a solitary job in a sense.  You are not completely alone as you will likely be part of a team and sit with an office with other people who you can discuss cases (or chat) with, but you do not sit with  colleagues to write together. So, you have to be the kind of person who likes to be in your head a little bit. Paradoxically, you also have to be a little bit good at dealing with people because you have clients. You regularly have meetings where you meet with existing or new clients and discuss what they are working on, what can be patented, what should be patented…

And then there is the other side of patent jobs, what we call freedom to operate. In this case, a client comes to you and says “we want to do this thing” and then you have to find out if anybody has a patent that will prevent them from doing that.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

For me it is when I work with a client and I feel that I have done a really good job for them, and they are really happy. When you work on a project with a team of scientists and at the end of the project, they tell me that I have truly captured their invention and that they have enjoyed working with me, that makes my day.

What is the typical career ladder in patent law?

The career ladder is very clear and it is relatively inflexible, which is both good and bad. If you work in a patent firm your start as a trainee (sometimes also called “technical assistant”). Then you qualify and you become typically what we call an “associate”. That means that you are a qualified attorney and you can legally sign documents and be responsible for your cases, but you are still a bit green and have to build experience to manage everything by yourself. When you are a more experienced attorney, you move into a more senior position that might have different names depending on the firm. And from there, you move to be a partner that means that you are involved in the management of the firm, help train other attorneys, etc.

You can also work as an in-house patent attorney. This means that you work in the IP department of a company. This involves the same type of exams I mentioned before, but the work can be slightly different depending on the company. Most innovative companies of a certain size will have at least one patent attorney, but it is not rare they have multiple ones that do most of the job that a patent attorney would do in a firm, just in-house. In this case, there is no partnership structure and you need to research the company to understand their IP department and what the career ladder looks like.

What about networking? Did it play any role when you transitioned to patent law?

Patent law is not one of those jobs where you need to know someone to break in but talking to a patent attorney in advance might help to get an idea for yourself of what a day in the job is like, what kind of people you will get to work with, the key skills for the role… This type of networking is more useful to decide if patent law is a good match for you rather than for getting an actual job. The sort of questions you are asking me now can be very useful when you go to an interview because it shows that you have a genuine interest to understand what the job is going to be like. Then you just apply and go through the interview process I described above.

Is there anything else we have not covered and do you think it is relevant for PhDs and postdocs considering a career in patent law?

I would say it is worth talking to a patent attorney just to break the stigma (if you have any) that patent attorneys are not scientists. We are a bunch of (mostly very nice) nerds! If you go and talk to one, you will probably find a lot more common points than you think.