Spotlight on patent attorneys: what working life is like (2022)

If you want to use your engineering or science degree but you don’t want to be an engineer, or scientist, a career as a patent attorney could be for you. Peter Silcock, a partner at J A Kemp, reveals what life is like as a patent attorney.

A job as a patent attorney allows you to combine the technical knowledge you developed on your degree with the legal side of things. We spoke to Peter to find out more about what a patent attorney does and what working life is like for him.

What careers are available in intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) encompasses patents, trade marks, copyright and designs.

You could become a patent attorney or a trade mark attorney. Trade mark attorneys specialise in getting registered trade marks to protect brands and logos whereas patent attorneys specialise in protecting technology.

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You could also be an IP solicitor or an IP barrister , specialising in patents, trade marks, copyright or designs. These jobs are more focused on IP enforcement whereas patent attorneys focus on getting the IP in place. To become an IP solicitor or barrister after completing a STEM degree you would need to complete a law conversion course.

What is a patent attorney?

A patent attorney is somebody who has a specialised qualification to assist in obtaining patents and acting in all matters relating to patent law. The profession is a protected title and only people who have passed all of the exams can call themselves patent attorneys. Most patent attorneys in the UK are dual qualified as UK patent attorneys and European patent attorneys.

Patent attorneys tend to work mainly on patents – legal rights granted to the owner of an invention. To obtain a patent, an invention must be new and non-obvious. However, we may also advise on registered designs, which protect the appearance of the product such as the design of a car headlight. We might, from time to time, advise on copyright. A few patent attorneys are also dual qualified as trade mark attorneys so they will work on trade marks as well.

What areas can a patent attorney work in?

I work for a private practice firm but you could also work as an in-house patent attorney for an organisation. Large chemical, pharmaceutical and engineering companies tend to have their own patent departments.

Most patent attorney firms have three different teams: life sciences, chemical, and engineering and IT. You will specialise in the subject you took your degree in. I studied chemistry so I work in our chemical and pharmaceuticals team and most of the work I do is on patents related to chemical technology.

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You do branch out though: I often work on patents for medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and I also go into biotech as well.

Who are a patent attorney’s clients?

A patent attorney can work with a range of clients. I typically work with scientists from:

  • university technology transfer departments, who commercialise the research coming out of the university
  • spin-out companies founded by academics from universities
  • small- and medium-sized enterprises
  • large domestic and European clients

We also work for foreign attorney firms. A patent is restricted to the territory you apply for so if you want global coverage you have to apply for patents all over the world. Patent attorney firms in the US, China and Japan, for example, often ask us to get European and UK patents for their clients.

What are a patent attorney’s typical tasks?

A day in the office for me might involve:

  • assessing technology and advising on whether it is patentable
  • drafting and filing a patent application
  • going through the application process, eg responding to a patent examiner’s report and arguing why the invention should be granted a patent
  • advising a client on what they can do with a patent once they’ve got it
  • advising a client on their freedom to operate in a particular area of technology

We do get involved in contentious matters too, where there is a dispute at the heart of the matter. Whereas solicitors and barristers act before the courts, patent attorneys act before the patent offices, such as the European Patent Office (EPO). Once the EPO has granted you a patent, anybody can oppose this patent. I might find myself challenging somebody else’s patent on behalf of my client or I might need to represent my client to defend their patent against a challenge. A client may also ask for advice on whether their patent has been infringed and how they can enforce their patent.

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My day will usually involve at least one meeting, either with clients or internally. An internal meeting might be about business development, for example, or it could be to discuss a recent change in patent law with my colleagues. It’s important for me to keep informed on the latest developments.

I might also fit in some networking, such as a business breakfast or an evening seminar, to meet new clients and catch up with existing clients. Networking isn’t limited to partners though; trainees are also encouraged to get involved with business development and attend networking events as they progress in the firm.

What does drafting a patent application involve?

Drafting a patent application is a big part of the job. The most important part of the patent application is the section that contains the claims. The claims define the subject matter for which you’re seeking patent protection. A patent attorney needs to claim the invention as broadly as possible to give the client the widest scope of protection. Further claims that have narrower focuses should also be included in case the broad claim accidentally covers something already out there that you didn’t know about at the time of drafting.

Once the claims section is finished, you’ll need to draft the description. This needs to describe the invention clearly and completely enough for somebody skilled in the relevant field to be able to carry it out. This is part of the bargain between the patent-holder and the public: a limited monopoly is granted in exchange for telling the public how to practise the invention.

What is working life like for a patent attorney?

As a trainee, you’ll be working in a team and your work will be supervised by a qualified patent attorney, but once you’re qualified you will need less supervision and there will be quite a bit of independent work .

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However, there are big cases when working in a team is more appropriate. For example, we recently defended a pharmaceutical company’s patent for a blockbuster drug that was being opposed by several rival companies. It was a two-year process that culminated in a two-day hearing at the European Patent Office. The team included four partners, and different individuals were responsible for different parts of the defence.

My job is client facing ; everything we do is about our clients and we need to keep them informed every step of the way. This isn’t just through emails and letters; I’m always on the phone with clients or in client meetings.

It’s also deadline driven because patent offices will set deadlines and it’s important to meet them. The patent examiner might have some objections to a patent application and will set a deadline for me to address those objections, for example by filing arguments or amending the claims.

It’s not common to work in the evenings or at weekends but if I’ve got a few deadlines all at once or I’m getting close to a deadline, I might need to have the odd late night. Or if I have a hearing at the EPO on a Monday, I will need to travel on the Sunday and prepare for the hearing the night before.

Will a patent attorney need to travel?

The EPO has headquarters in Munich and The Hague so most European patent attorneys will need to travel to attend hearings. For me, attending these hearings and successfully obtaining a patent or defending or opposing a patent is one of the best parts of the job.

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When you get a bit more senior, there are also opportunities to travel abroad for business development reasons.

Thanks to Peter Silcock for his help with this article. Peter is a partner in the chemistry and pharmaceuticals group at J A Kemp. He started his career as a patent attorney in 2002 and joined J A Kemp in 2005 .

FAQs

What is a patent attorney job like? ›

A patent attorney assists their client, or their employer, in obtaining a patent. This includes drafting the description of the invention and the claims, as well as communicating with the patent office to make the case for why a patent should be granted.

How hard is it to get a patent attorney job? ›

Competition for trainee patent attorney positions is tough. Each firm only takes between one and six new trainees a year. To maximise your chances, don't just apply to one firm. Most firms will have details of how to apply to them on their websites.

Where do most patent attorneys live? ›

The most U.S. patent agents in total numbers live in California followed by New York and Texas.

Where do patent attorneys make the most money? ›

Highest paying cities for Patent Attorneys near United States
  • San Francisco, CA. $172,402 per year. 6 salaries reported.
  • San Jose, CA. $164,050 per year. 7 salaries reported.
  • $163,378 per year. 6 salaries reported.
  • Washington, DC. $163,108 per year. 5 salaries reported.
  • Boston, MA. $161,271 per year. ...
  • Show more nearby cities.
10 Sept 2022

What does a patent lawyer do day to day? ›

Responsibilities include consulting inventors to discuss their ideas, examining scientific documents, drafting and applying for patents, conducting litigations and defending or enforcing existing patents.

What type of lawyer makes the most money? ›

Types Of Lawyers That Make The Most Money
  • Medical Lawyers – Average $138,431. Medical lawyers make one of the highest median wages in the legal field. ...
  • Intellectual Property Attorneys – Average $128,913. ...
  • Trial Attorneys – Average $97,158. ...
  • Tax Attorneys – Average $101,204. ...
  • Corporate Lawyers – $116,361.
18 Dec 2020

Is becoming a patent attorney competitive? ›

Entry to the patent attorney profession is highly competitive. We and other firms do receive many more high-quality applications than we have places to offer. Some firms offer limited work experience, but this is quite rare and we are not among them.

Do you need a PhD to be a patent attorney? ›

Do I need to have a PhD? The level of understanding obtained through a PhD could be beneficial in some technical areas. However, the case-load of a patent attorney often varies and it is unusual for a patent attorney to be able to concentrate solely on one specific subject matter area unless they work in-house.

Is patent law competitive? ›

Patent agent positions are competitive; thus, many law firms have a strong preference for individuals with a graduate degree.

What do you call a patent lawyer? ›

Patent Attorney or Patent Agent work offers opportunities for those who want to branch out beyond the limits of the laboratory or academia, and can lead to high executive positions in law, industry, or government, including lucrative employment working for the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

How many active patent attorneys are there in the US? ›

Overview of the Data

Currently, there are 47,228 registered patent practitioners in the U.S.

How many patent attorneys are there in the US? ›

Of roughly 1.3 million licensed US attorneys,7 United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) records identify only about 34,000 as being registered patent attorneys—less than 3 percent of all licensed attorneys in the country.

How much do top patent attorneys make? ›

How much does a Top Patent Attorney make in the United States? The average Top Patent Attorney salary in the United States is $267,387 as of September 26, 2022, but the range typically falls between $224,543 and $307,819.

What is the highest paying occupation? ›

The highest-paying job in the world, in a traditional sense, holds the number one spot in this article: anesthesiologist. They are also the only job listed above $300,000 a year.

How much do patent attorneys make in America? ›

Salary Ranges for Patent Attorneys

The salaries of Patent Attorneys in the US range from $24,826 to $668,655 , with a median salary of $120,348 . The middle 57% of Patent Attorneys makes between $120,349 and $303,088, with the top 86% making $668,655.

What attracts you to the patent profession? ›

One of the things that attracted me to the patent profession was the opportunity to work in a wide variety of technological fields, and it has certainly not disappointed. The nature of the profession means that you are learning about new technology on a daily basis.

Why is IP law interesting? ›

Why study intellectual property law? Studying intellectual property law will not only allow you to progress into an exciting and ever-evolving area of law, but will also teach you attention to detail, technical and scientific knowledge and broader awareness of areas like commercial law, creative commons and litigation.

What is the difference between a patent agent and attorney? ›

A patent agent is someone who has passed the Patent Bar through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A patent attorney is a person who has gone to and graduated from law school. This person has passed the State Bar exam as well as the USPTO exam.

What type of lawyer makes the least money? ›

Legal Aid Attorney

Legal Aid attorneys provide counsel to people who cannot afford to pay for their own lawyer. These are public interest jobs that many lawyers get a great deal of satisfaction out of, even if they don't make a large amount of money.

What field of law is most in demand? ›

Most in-demand practice areas
  • Commercial law.
  • Litigation.
  • Real estate law.
  • Intellectual property.
  • Family law.

How can a lawyer make 7 figures? ›

Lawyers don't start out making $1 million-plus, but it's easy to reach the seven figure salary status as they work their way up the ladder. There are many lawyers who build up their small firms to seven figures by treating it like a business, which includes a focus on marketing, sales, systems, and strategy.

Do you need a PhD to be a patent attorney? ›

Do I need to have a PhD? The level of understanding obtained through a PhD could be beneficial in some technical areas. However, the case-load of a patent attorney often varies and it is unusual for a patent attorney to be able to concentrate solely on one specific subject matter area unless they work in-house.

Is patent law competitive? ›

Patent agent positions are competitive; thus, many law firms have a strong preference for individuals with a graduate degree.

What is it like being a patent agent? ›

But, like Patent Attorneys, Patent Agents work with inventors, researchers, and attorneys to evaluate invention technology, assess patentability, draft patent applications, and analyze and respond to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Actions.

What attracts you to the patent profession? ›

One of the things that attracted me to the patent profession was the opportunity to work in a wide variety of technological fields, and it has certainly not disappointed. The nature of the profession means that you are learning about new technology on a daily basis.

How competitive are patent attorney jobs? ›

Entry to the patent attorney profession is highly competitive. We and other firms do receive many more high-quality applications than we have places to offer. Some firms offer limited work experience, but this is quite rare and we are not among them.

How many patent attorneys are there in the US? ›

Of roughly 1.3 million licensed US attorneys,7 United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) records identify only about 34,000 as being registered patent attorneys—less than 3 percent of all licensed attorneys in the country.

What skills do you need to be a patent lawyer? ›

Key skills for patent attorneys
  • Meticulous attention to detail.
  • Independence.
  • Ability to explain complex information clearly and concisely.
  • Good communication skills.
  • Sound scientific and technical knowledge.
  • Good IT skills.
  • Analytical skills.

Do patent attorneys have a good work life balance? ›

For Patent Attorneys, it's a sector of law that offers huge amounts of variety, a good work/life balance and a career path with longevity. What is Intellectual Property? Intellectual Property is about the ownership and accessibility of inventions and ideas.

Do you need a Masters to become a patent attorney? ›

An undergraduate degree in a hard science or engineering subject. If you want to become a patent attorney, you'll need at least a 2:1 in a degree. Due to the technical and scientific knowledge required, the majority of patent attorneys have a scientific or engineering background.

How much does a patent officer earn? ›

Patent Agent salary in India ranges between ₹ 3.1 Lakhs to ₹ 24.6 Lakhs with an average annual salary of ₹ 8.0 Lakhs. Salary estimates are based on 53 salaries received from Patent Agents.

Are patent agents worth it? ›

Patent agents have good job prospects. With a growing population and advancement in science and technology, as well as the rise in inventions, employment opportunities for patent agents will eventually increase.

Can a patent agent work from home? ›

As a remote patent agent, your job is to work from home to file documents and help clients with matters related to intellectual property. In this role, you may use virtual databases to help determine eligibility for a trademark, fill out a patent application, or write claims of ownership.

Is the patent bar exam hard? ›

Despite being an open book exam, the patent bar exam is one of the toughest in the country, with less than 50% passing since 2013. Many students put in additional hours post-course of study but still feel like they're ill-prepared and nervous on exam day.

What is a patent lawyer called? ›

Patent litigators handle lawsuits and, though they may have a lesser technical background, are often required to look through previous technology for their case (called "prior arts"). Transactional attorneys primarily handle the buying and selling of profiles, licenses, and licensing agreements.

Is intellectual property a good career? ›

IP is a very well paid area of work because of the specialized nature of work, the criticality of performance, and rich corporate clients. Indian IP practice prospered after globalization as hordes of international MNCs landed in India to do business thanks to the opened markets.

Why do you love intellectual property law? ›

It is undeniable that IP law can expose you to more intellectual and finer aspects of human experience, especially creativity, art, and innovation as opposed to say capital markets, project finance, criminal law, or M&A! Every piece of intellectual property has some creative aspects to it.

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