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Solicitors' practice areas

Intellectual property

Joseph Sako

Bristows LLP

Location: London
University: University of York 
Undergraduate degree: History and politics 

IP work can be divided into two main areas: so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ intellectual property. ‘Hard’ intellectual property generally relates to registered IP rights such as patents, while ‘soft’ intellectual property includes registered trademarks and registered designs, copyright, unregistered design rights, database rights, trade secrets, confidential information and passing off. IP lawyers advise on issues ranging from commercial exploitation to infringement disputes, and agreements that deal either exclusively with IP or with IP rights in the wider context of larger commercial transactions. Many lawyers specialise in either contentious or non-contentious IP work.

To gain insight into the roles of solicitor and barrister, and so that he could decide which career path to pursue, Joseph Sako did some work experience in both a chambers and a solicitors firm. “I love working with other people and I felt that there were more opportunities to do that as a solicitor than as a barrister, who work more independently. That’s what swayed me to pursue the solicitor route.” Nevertheless, Joe’s decision wasn’t simple – he was attracted to the advocacy element of barrister work. Happily, for Joe, his work experience helped him to understand that advocacy is something that can be part of a solicitor’s role later down the line, so nothing was left abandoned.

Patents – variety is the spice of life

Joe completed his training contract at Bristows, undertaking five seats and a three-month secondment at a technology consultancy company: “Bristows offers a combination of three and six-month seats, which allows trainees to experience a variety of different departments and interact with many people, helping to maintain the firm’s cohesive culture.” However, it was his six-month seat in the intellectual property (IP) litigation department that captured his imagination: “Before Bristows I had an eye on IP, but I was keeping an open mind. At Bristows there is a split between contentious and non-contentious IP work, which spans all the different rights. I was fortunate enough to experience a bit of everything. During my seat I became fascinated by the variety that comes with working with patents – one day you can be working on an HIV drug and the next day, on an obscure invention in a different field entirely.”

The day-to-day work in patent litigation is varied and Joe points out that it all depends on what type of case or stage of dispute you are at as to how your day goes: “A big chunk of your time will be spent getting to grips with the technology of a patent and working closely with experts. Then there’s the strategy to be built with the clients. And if the dispute is international, you must ensure that the jurisdictions align – you can find yourself working as a project manager.”

“I like the strategic element of patent litigation; it requires you to think of inventive ways to achieve your client’s commercial objectives"

There’s a huge step up to be taken from life as a trainee to working as a qualified lawyer. Joe explains that once you are qualified you will immediately find yourself managing a workload, drafting more documents and getting into the nitty gritty of cases. But he adds that as a trainee at Bristows, “you get such a varied workload that you’ll have the experience necessary to make the jump from trainee to associate”.

Expert eye

Working with experts at the top of their field is one of the highlights of his career in patent litigation. “It’s great being able to work with experts. You learn so much. You also have to become something of an expert yourself; you must understand the technology well enough to present sophisticated legal arguments and draft expert reports. I also like the strategic element of patent litigation; it requires you to think of inventive ways to achieve your client’s commercial objectives.” Nevertheless, while working with technology experts is a real privilege, Joe recommends keeping sight of all those other legal details. He mentions that one of the grittier aspects of law is keeping an eye on the Civil Procedure Rules and the numerous court guides and deadlines. “You’ll find that you get really into the technical details, but it’s important not to have tunnel vision – it can be a little irritating, keeping on top of these things.”

The future of patents

Brexit is the dominant issue of the day and the uncertainty for law firms and clients means planning is a challenge. If the United Kingdom does leave the European Union, Joe notes the key questions that will arise for the UK patent world: “Can we still be a part of the Unified Patent Court? Do we still want to be part of it? What will it mean for UK proceedings generally?” Presently, a patent can be designated in lots of jurisdictions, but any proceedings concerning that patent will need to be brought in each country separately. However, Joe highlights that with the Unified Patent Court, it will be possible to bring one action at one court for all the jurisdictions, provided that the countries involved are part of the Unified Patent Court Agreement: “What does that mean for us? It means that UK firms may end up competing with EU firms.”

Stamina – a marathon not a sprint

From trainee level onwards, solicitors must be able to work with lots of different people, not just your immediate team, but also barristers, experts, witnesses and clients, some of whom may not work in or understand the law. “You will have to be able to adapt your way of working to those around you, learn from them and develop your own skills.”

Litigation requires stamina. This is something that Joe feels lawyers don’t talk about much. “Cases can go on for months or years. You can be working on one big case for all this time and you must maintain your focus and concentration. New issues arise every day, such as technical points raised by the experts and requests from the other side – you have to be nimble with your own legal arguments to reflect these changes and keep track of developments so that nothing is forgotten when the next deadline comes around.”

Joe maintains his interest in these long cases precisely because new details turn up all the time, meaning that the work is unpredictable and one big case can feel like several mini-cases. “Pace yourself! You can’t always be going a million miles per hour for that length of time. Knowing when it is appropriate to step it up a gear and knowing when to conserve energy so that you can focus on the next development is key.”

Let the stats tell their own story

Joe advises budding solicitors to do as much research as possible, be it open days, law fairs or simply speaking to people. “You can read all the marketing material you like, but each firm will say much the same – ‘come here if you want a challenging profession and varied work, we are nice and friendly’ – you will only know if the career and the firm is right for you if you go in and see it first-hand.”

Reflecting back on his own application, Joe wonders whether he focused enough on certain aspects that were important to him: “I’ve been lucky to find myself in an inclusive and diverse firm. However, when applying I should have looked at what the firms were doing to create a diverse and inclusive working environment. I think that tells you more about what a place is like than the biography that the firm has written about itself. Find out how many female partners there are, how many BAME colleagues are at the firm or LBGTQ+ initiatives are in place. Ask yourself whether the firm is genuinely inclusive. I think it can give you an inkling into how friendly and accommodating a place really is.”

Before beginning his interview process, Joe expected a scary, corporate environment. Imagine his relief to find that lawyers are normal people who are generally friendly. “The hierarchy was not nearly as rigid as I had imagined: you can talk to people! It would have made my interview process much less daunting if I’d known. As a trainee there is potential to feel like a resource or a temporary body who will simply move on. Bristows made me feel part of a team.”