Intellectual property

Intellectual property

Nadine Bleach

Bristows LLP

University: Imperial College
Degree: Physics

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.

As is the case for many IP lawyers, Nadine Bleach took her undergraduate background in the sciences and converted it into a career in law: “I wanted to use my physics degree, but not necessarily in a purely scientific field. IP law, which requires the application of technical understanding to a legal framework, seemed like a sound option. Although it was intellectual property that drew me in, looking at many different areas of law made me realise that even without the direct use of science, there are a lot of transferable skills, including problem-solving and analysis, and the ability to structure and work through issues in a logical way.”

Patently clear

Nadine trained at Bristows, enjoying among other things the fact that she was able to undertake six seats which offered the chance to try a variety of departments and make an informed choice at the point of qualification. That led her to join their market-leading IP department in 2014. “At Bristows there is a split between transactional and litigious intellectual property; I’m in the litigation department, specialising in patents,” she explains. “I work on disputes in all kinds of scientific areas, but I am drawn more to the technological areas – such as telecoms, engineering and mechanics. It is a mix of advising clients who can be at various stages of the dispute process, and running litigation at court.”

Nadine was a part of one of the most high-profile patent cases of recent years, Unwired Planet v Huawei, Samsung & others, acting for Samsung: “It was my first telecoms case at Bristows and I was involved from the very beginning and throughout the life cycle of the case. Piecing it all together, working on the high-level strategy as well as getting to grips with the technical detail and then attending court and watching it all unfold – it was very interesting and exciting.”

Day to day, what you will find yourself doing depends largely on the type of matter you are involved in and, if it is a court case, the stage the trial has reached, as Nadine explains: “At the beginning of a trial, you’re getting into the subject matter, working with the client to understand what the case is all about, including any products, features of the market and the issues in dispute. You need to understand things from the client’s perspective, including their commercial goals. The focus then turns to strategy, including finding and working with experts in the particular field. Cases often feel fast-moving and before you know it you are in the nitty gritty of trial preparation, working with barristers on the strategy for presenting the case to the court.”

One of the most interesting things about the job is the opportunity to work with and meet a huge variety of people: “Clients, barristers, experts; they all have a role to play in preparing patent cases for court. Much of it is often understanding complicated technical information; despite having a scientific background, we will work with experts who know these areas in incredible detail. I love working with people who are the best in their fields; you learn about some very interesting things, which you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. You also become something of a mini-expert in each area as you go from case to case. For example, I might move from telecoms to medical devices to product packaging!”

“Teamwork is a huge part; the more experienced I get, the more I realise its importance, in terms of working more efficiently and making me a better lawyer”

The unpredictability of hours and workload is one of the few disadvantages to this exciting career: “Especially coming up to deadlines, you don’t always know in advance how busy you’re going to be. Things come up when you least expect them to and that can be tough. But I like that we are often working in teams –working things through together. As a junior lawyer, that’s a great way to learn.”

Nadine explains the significance of the much-anticipated 2018 launch of the Unified Patent Court (UPC): “For example, rather than having to launch a patent action in each country of infringement, under the UPC it will be possible to bring a single action, provided the countries in which infringement is alleged are part of the UPC. A similar principle applies for invalidating patents. It will be quite different to the current UK system, including different rules of procedure and involving judges from all over Europe. While Brexit certainly muddied the waters, the plan is still for the UPC to open in early 2018 and for the United Kingdom to be part of the system. What is less certain is the United Kingdom’s longer term participation.”

There is also a concern among some patent lawyers that the United Kingdom may lose some work as a result of the UPC because all European lawyers will be competing for the same work. However, there remains confidence in the ability to win work and there is also the prospect of work flowing in from across the Atlantic: “There has been a change in the United States in the rules as to where patent infringement proceedings can be brought. This restricts a patentee’s ability to bring cases in the most patentee-friendly jurisdictions in the United States, such as the Eastern District of Texas. This may drive more work in the direction of the future UPC, where the patentee will have more options as to where it can bring its claims. In fact the UPC could well cause a global shift in litigation from the United States to Europe.”

Skills and challenges

Nadine reflects on some of the most important skills associated with a successful career in IP law. “Teamwork is a huge part; the more experienced I get, the more I realise its importance, in terms of working more efficiently and making me a better lawyer,” she says. “You need an eye for detail – that’s very important. The entire strategy in a case can change on the smallest of details. It’s also essential to be logical and not jump to conclusions and do things in a methodical way. You also need to be able to look at what the client wants and needs, their commercial goals, as well as the technical case, as it all feeds into a cohesive whole. This is both challenging and enjoyable – I feel fulfilled when I’ve manged to put together what can be a very complicated puzzle. I enjoy this mental challenge.”

A challenge ahead of would-be lawyers is finding the firm that is the best fit for them. Nadine has a few suggestions on how to go about doing that: “Do your research to work out what firms do and specialise in. All firms are different, they are different sizes, working in different ways with different types of client; so you need to identify what is best for you. Try to understand about a firm before you apply, so that you can make a targeted application.” The best way of doing that is to get out there and talk to people: “Go to open days and law fairs; they’re really helpful to get insight into a range of firms. I realised that I wanted to work here at Bristows when I did the vacation scheme – I really liked the people and the work I was exposed to. Understanding a firm’s culture and type of work is best done through speaking to people first hand, especially trainees but also more senior lawyers, who can offer insight into life at the firm once qualified. If you like what you hear, then it’s a good indicator that the firm will suit you too.”

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