From a post-doc with eight years’ experience to a new profession in patents
As a post-doc with eight years’ experience, the thought of starting in a new profession from square one was daunting, but after doing more westerns than John Wayne (western blots to those not familiar with biological research), I decided to leave the lab bench. My degree was in Biochemistry, and I went on to achieve a PhD, both at the University of Nottingham. I then undertook five years’ postdoctoral research on a Cancer Research UK-funded project at the University of Leicester. Whilst working on such a project can be satisfying, advancing through academia and achieving a permanent position is notoriously challenging.
I knew I wanted to stay in touch with biological research and enjoyed scientific writing, so a career in intellectual property seemed like it would tick all of the boxes. I was able to get some work experience with an in-house team for a large pharmaceutical company. This provided a valuable insight into the day to day life of a patent attorney, and I was confident I would enjoy working in the profession.
Since my first day at Potter Clarkson, I have been exposed to a wide variety of scientific topics, much more so than as an academic scientist. Another bonus is that every day I get to look at research that actually worked!
My first 12 months has been spent working on real cases under the supervision of a partner. In one week, topics can vary from probiotics to small-molecule drugs to protein engineering. There is no time to master the scientific field of every case, but that is why analytical skills are key. If I have questions, or need guidance there is always someone to ask, whether it be my supervising partner, or a knowledgeable associate or fellow trainee.
A typical day entails… well there isn’t really a typical day. The variety of technologies and types of work we are involved in, including prosecution in countries all over the world and enforcing/challenging IP rights, means no two days are ever the same. The great thing about a career as a patent attorney is that every day is like a school day, there is always something more to learn either scientifically or legally.
There are a number of exams that need to be passed in order to become qualified. Potter Clarkson is hugely supportive of trainees and I am currently attending a number of in-house tutorials run by a partner or senior associate – all of whom have been through the process! I will also attend a number of residential courses which will help me to prepare for my exams in October.
Potter Clarkson is also a very sociable firm, and there are lots of opportunities to get involved in social events, whether it be the office away-day or regular post-work drinks. The large number of trainees under one roof is definitely a positive from both a support and a social perspective.
From research at the European Synchrotron Radiation facility in Grenoble to a new career in patents …
I joined Potter Clarkson in July 2011 as an assistant patent attorney in the Electronics and Computing group.
I studied Physics at the University of Nottingham, both for my undergraduate MSci degree and my PhD based in the nanoscience department. In 2007 I moved to Grenoble with my husband and worked as a translator before finding a research post at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. I was involved in a wide range of studies and experiments with researchers from around the world, and I loved the variation in the projects I worked on - from understanding volcanic glasses to tracking a photosynthesis reaction at the atomic level. One aspect which didn't really suit me, however, was the hours of work - the facility ran 24 hours a day, and so on some days I could be working until midnight, or later, setting up and working on an experiment.
In 2010 our son was born, and I decided that although I really enjoyed research, it wasn't the career I wanted to follow, partly because of the time I needed to spend away from home. I considered what other careers were possible which would allow me to follow scientific and technological advances, without me being the person working in the lab and making the discoveries. I started to look at a career as a patent attorney and it just seemed ideal for me. After 8 months at Potter Clarkson I really feel that I have made the best choice and that my job suits everything I want to do in my career.
Firstly, I still work on new technologies and scientific breakthroughs every day. In the Electronics and Computing group, so far I have worked on cases in telecommunications, medical physics, mining technologies, fuel cell technology, nano-electronics and materials science. And I have really worked on the cases; from my first week here I have been involved in real cases with real deadlines and with real challenges and problems which need an answer. That's not to say I was thrown in at the deep end on my own - there is a lot of support and everyone has their door open for you to ask for help.
As well as the varied subjects which I see every day, there are many different aspects to the job. I find that our group has a lot of drafting work. If a client has an idea for an invention, we can work with them from the start of the patent process to bring out their inventive ideas and draft the patent specification for them. I really enjoy this part of my work, as I enjoyed writing journal articles as a researcher.
Our group also does a lot of prosecution work. After filing a patent application, usually the examination process begins where an examiner will assess the invention to see if it should be granted a patent. Here it's really important that the draft you wrote at the start includes all the information you need to put forward your case for patentability. I enjoy trying to argue our case as to why the invention should be granted a patent, but some days it can be easier than others! I have just started to receive cases back which I have been involved in the prosecution of, which the examiner has decided can be granted a patent, and it is really satisfying.
Another aspect to work as a patent attorney is the exams. I will have my first foundation exams in November, and I've not sat any real exams for a few years so I hope I will be able to get back into revision! Again, I'm not alone in working through the exam system, as there are two other trainees in my year group. We will be together in the in-house tutorials which Potter Clarkson organise, and at the external revision courses which we will attend just before the exams. It gives me a welcome feeling of support to know I'm not on my own through the exams and although I'm a bit out of exam practice, I don't feel too nervous just yet!
So in summary, I still get to work on the newest technologies and I still get to write and read all about cutting edge developments just as I did when I was a researcher - but now, I don't have the unsociable working hours and I get to learn more about a wide variety of subjects, both scientific and legal. My colleagues are all lovely, friendly and helpful, and I definitely made the right choice in coming to work here. One down side for me is that I do miss the mountains (in Grenoble we lived next door to the French Alps), but I guess you can't have everything!
From qualified positions in London-based private practice and industry …
Having worked in a range of fields and environments before joining Potter Clarkson - in engineering and intellectual property, in industry and private practice, both within and outside London - it would be fair to say that my varied background has provided me with the opportunity to experience life from many different perspectives.
I have always looked for a working environment that is friendly, progressive, supportive and focussed, and have certainly found this at Potter Clarkson. For me, it is also important to strike that elusive "work-life balance". I believe I have succeeded in doing so here, and long may it continue! In fact, there is a general recognition at Potter Clarkson that "wellbeing" is of utmost importance, and a focus on this is ingrained into the firm's ethos.
Of course, as in any professional environment, work can occasionally be stressful. Working life in our profession, particularly in private practice, can often be a solitary affair in which you are buried under a pile of paperwork. But here at Potter Clarkson, there are formally and informally organised opportunities to socialise with colleagues, both during and outside working hours. I have found it refreshing to be encouraged to get out from behind my desk and meet my colleagues in a relaxed environment.
I have particularly enjoyed the regular opportunities to travel overseas, and not just for oral proceedings! As you progress, you can also become a member of an internal committee to help the running of the firm. You are encouraged and supported to participate in CIPA activities, and in numerous business development activities.
There is a positive emphasis on training at Potter Clarkson and the fantastic exam results over the years have reflected this. There is also an increasing focus on teamwork, which I think can only improve the cohesiveness of a firm as large as this one.
I have said much about working here. Well, what about living in and around Nottingham? I would say that if you are looking for comparatively affordable housing in a picturesque, safe (despite what the press may say!) environment, then Nottingham and its surrounding areas offer a wide variety of choice. I am now fortunate enough to live in a lovely green, quiet area where birdsong greets me as I leave for work each morning and arrive back home in the evening. There is also a range of stylish accommodation available within the city if urban life is more to your suiting. For me, first class education for my young children is a priority. We have found this locally, and this hasn't, at least as yet, required the payment of school fees. Shopping is also one of Nottingham's fortes (hence the tag "Shoppingham") with an abundance of choice in the city centre and further afield.
At Potter Clarkson, as with any private practice firm, you need to prove yourself. However, in my experience, if you do prove yourself, promotion can be quick. I particularly value the professional focus throughout the firm, and have welcomed the autonomy, freedom and support to develop my practice area. No place is perfect, and not everyone's perception or experience will be the same, but I would say that Potter Clarkson provides a rewarding, positive environment in which you can feel comfortable and be yourself. I also think that we are fortunate to have a comparatively young and mixed partnership, which is well positioned to steer the firm through a dynamic, ever-changing business environment.
From qualified positions in private practice and industry …
I joined Potter Clarkson in January 2001 having previously worked both in private practice and industry.
Potter Clarkson is a well run organisation in which many management functions are handled by professional managers, leaving attorneys to concentrate on intellectual property issues for their clients. Nevertheless there are numerous opportunities to become involved in other areas such as business development both in the UK and elsewhere.
The friendly atmosphere within the firm, and the team approach taken where appropriate, are refreshing and contribute to an efficient working environment.
It's great to be part of a firm that takes training and continuing professional development seriously, for example by having monthly meetings during which relevant issues may be raised and discussed, and running in house tutorials for trainees.
I joined the Biotechnology group at Potter Clarkson almost two years ago. …
At undergraduate degree level I studied Biological Sciences at Warwick University, and following that I obtained a PhD in Developmental Genetics at Sheffield University.
After having worked in the relaxed environment of academia I was concerned that working in an office, in a suit, would be an unwelcome change. However, Potter Clarkson is not the “stuffy” office that you might expect in a law firm. Since day one everyone has been very welcoming, which has made the transition easy.
Unlike many patent firms, Potter Clarkson has all the technology groups in one location. This has provided me with opportunities to work on cases in a number of fields, for example textiles; chemistry; product packaging; and, of course, biotechnology. Whilst working on cases directed to various technologies was daunting at first, it has provided me with the confidence to take on any challenge placed in front of me, and has meant that I have developed skills not limited to my specialised technology field. Also, the majority of attorneys within the firm operate an “open-door” policy which means that, if needed, help is never hard to find.
It is no secret that the exams you need to pass to become a qualified patent attorney (for both the UK and Europe) are difficult. However, Potter Clarkson has provided me with a supportive environment in which to train. The training starts with tutorials with a qualified attorney months before the exams, and continues with paid-for residential study courses. The company also allows you to take the day of the exam off as well as an additional study day for each exam you have to take, which means that you don’t have to use your own holiday in order to sit the exams.
Lastly, Potter Clarkson is a very social company, which helps you settle into your new job, and life in Nottingham. The social calendar includes a yearly summer work outing and Christmas party. There are also chances to mix with other colleagues in the firm with informal weekly lunches, Friday pub-trips, and five-a-side football.
Scientist training as a patent attorney
I have always been a scientist, always with the ‘why why whys’, and probably drove my parents bonkers. After a random exchange with Children’s TV presenter Johnny Ball, I decided to study Biochemistry and Genetics at university, rather than astrophysics. I went on to achieve a PhD and undertook seven years postdoctoral research, all at the University of Nottingham. After letting myself accept that I didn’t actually enjoy lab work and maybe spending the rest of my life chasing the few experiments that actually worked was a bad idea, I set out to find something that would allow me to do all the things I enjoyed and was good at (without the lab work).
I can honestly say that I feel more like a scientist now that I am training as a patent attorney than I did as a postdoc. I am constantly using my brain, coming up with ideas, being creative and learning new things, not only the legal aspects but also cutting edge science that I would never have encountered had I stayed focused in my narrow area of research. I consider myself very lucky to work at Potter Clarkson. We are a big firm with about 14 trainees, and whilst I do undertake some work that doesn’t particularly fit with my background, we have a large and supportive biotech department, and so I can use my background to its full extent.
When I was considering a career as a patent attorney I wasn’t sure how ‘family friendly’ it is as a profession, which is important to me as not only am I on the older end of the new trainee scale (started when I was 34), I also have a five year old daughter. I am pleased to say that I’m finding it very ‘family friendly’ so far. I work regular ‘normal’ hours and have a shorter lunch break so I can pick up my daughter slightly earlier. I’ll admit that I was nervous about fitting in exam revision around looking after her, especially as everyone tells you that the exams are tough, which they are, but in reality they are actually only exams, like all the exams you’ve ever done before. So, please don’t let the exams put you off considering this as a career – they are things you just have to do and you can do them!
At Potter Clarkson we get a lot of support when it comes to exams. We have in-house tutorials, and attend residential courses in preparation for the exams. We also have time off per exam (on top of the day of the exam) for revision.
There is quite an active social life, both within Potter Clarkson and the CIPA Informals – all of which you can be involved with to the extent you choose. I am the East Midlands CIPA Informals social rep and we try to meet up every couple of months or so, which is particularly useful if, unlike me, you are from a small firm with no other trainees to chat to! Equally, it’s not a big deal if you don’t take up the chance to go out after work with colleagues (which is a good job when you’ve got kids!).