Patent attorneys, also known as patent agents, help people or companies to secure a patent and enforce the rights that provides. A patent is a grant by the state to inventors or organisations in return for the disclosure of a new invention. This gives the patent owner the right to stop other people using that invention without the owner's permission for up to 20 years.
Individuals and companies use patent attorneys because securing and enforcing a patent can be a long and complicated process requiring specialist skills. Though not lawyers, they have a thorough knowledge and understanding of law around intellectual property rights.
A patent attorney's work involves:
Many patent attorneys are self-employed, working freelance or as a partner in a firm.
Patent attorneys usually work standard office hours, Monday to Friday. Additional hours may be required to meet deadlines.
Most of the work is office based, but patent attorneys may visit the premises of clients or appear in court on behalf of clients. Travel to the European Patent Office in Munich or The Hague may be necessary. Patent attorneys also travel abroad to conferences and to visit clients.
Trainee patent attorneys may earn between £20,000 and £30,000 a year. Newly qualified attorneys earn between £50,000 and £70,000 a year.
Partners in private practice may earn between £90,000 and £300,000 a year.
There are around 1,750 registered patent attorneys practising in the UK and a further 850 in training. About 80 per cent of attorneys work in specialist firms in private practice, offering their services to a range of clients. Others are employed by large research and manufacturing organisations in fields such as engineering, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, IT and food and drink. They deal with patent issues relating to their employer's products. Some patent attorneys work for government departments and large firms of solicitors.
There are job opportunities in many large cities throughout the UK, but there is a greater concentration of patent attorneys in London and south and south-east England. Standards for entry are high, but the demand for trainees is likely to increase.
Vacancies for qualified patent attorneys are advertised in the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys' (CIPA) Journal and Supplement and in New Scientist. They are also advertised on the internet by specialist recruitment agencies.
To become a patent attorney, it is necessary to have an honours degree in a science, technology, engineering or maths-based subject. Many employers require at least an upper second class degree.
The minimum entry requirements for honours degree courses are two A levels and five GCSE's (A*-C) or equivalent qualifications. Applicants should check entry requirements with individual universities. Those without the usual entry qualifications can take an Access course.
Candidates also need a reading knowledge of French and German, as the work often involves documents in these languages. The working languages of the European Patent Office are English, French and German. Training in these languages is available from CIPA and some of the larger firms provide classes for their trainees.
There are postgraduate courses available that allow students the opportunity to take exams that give exemption from the foundation papers in the examination for the Register of Patent Agents as well as the foundation papers for qualification as a trade mark attorney. They include:
1. Bournemouth University's LLM in Intellectual Property. The course takes 15 months full time or 27 months part time. There are no set entry requirements, each applicant being considered on his or her merits.
2. Queen Mary College, University of London's MSc in Management of Intellectual Property. The course takes one year full time or two years part time. Entry is normally with at least a lower second class honours degree in a science or engineering subject.
After gaining a degree or postgraduate qualification, the next step is to apply for a traineeship or technical assistant position in a patent attorney's office or the patent department of a research or manufacturing organisation. Lists of patent attorney firms and industrial patent departments can be found on the CIPA website.
Although it is possible to represent clients without professional registration, it is strongly recommended that entrants work towards admission to the Register of Patent Agents. To be accepted on to the Register, candidates must complete a supervised training period of at least two years and pass examinations. It usually takes between four and five years to become fully qualified.
Technical assistants are usually trained in-house. They may attend a postgraduate course in intellectual property law giving exemption from all the foundation papers in the examination for the Register of Patent Agents. Courses are offered by:
The examination for the Register of Patent Agents is in two parts. The foundation papers are usually taken after around one year in the profession. The advanced papers are taken after about three years.
Most UK patent attorneys also take the European Qualifying Examination. This admits them to the list of European Patent Attorneys and permits them to practise before the European Patent Office. Candidates for the exam must have completed three years' training under a European patent attorney.
Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.
They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.
A patent attorney should:
Patent attorneys may choose to specialise in a particular field, depending on their scientific expertise. It is possible to become a partner in a firm of patent attorneys or the head of a patents department, or move to an executive or management position. Some patent attorneys take additional training to qualify as solicitors in the UK or attorneys in the USA. Qualified patent attorneys may become self-employed, either by taking on freelance work or setting up their own patent agency.
Patent attorneys may become patent examiners employed by the UK Patent Office. A few patent attorneys work towards the examinations of the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA) which qualify them to work in trade marks as well as patents.
There may be opportunities to work overseas, particularly in English-speaking countries or for multinational companies who work in English.
The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA),
95 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1DT
Tel: 020 7405 9450
European Patent Office (EPO),
80298 Munich, Germany
The Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA),
5th Floor, Outer Temple,
222-225 The Strand,
London WC2R 1BA
Tel: 020 7101 6090
Intellectual Property Office,
Concept House, Cardiff Road,
Newport, South Wales NP10 8QQ
Tel: 0845 950 0505
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.