University: University of Manchester
Degree: Physics (MPhys)
Intellectual property (IP) work can be divided into two main areas: so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. ‘Hard’ IP generally relates to patents, while ‘soft’ IP 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.
Not knowing which direction to take their career is a familiar feeling for many students and Sam was no exception. Having identified that he enjoyed the challenge and process of working things out that came with his physics degree, it was only when he attended a university career fair that the idea of becoming a lawyer was put forward and he began to consider his options. “Someone actually asked me whether I had thought about becoming a patent attorney. And, at the time, I had no idea what that even was,” he laughs.
“After looking into it, I secured some work experience at a patent attorney firm, then at patent litigation law firms and now I am a patent litigator.”
Science to IP
While Sam wasn’t interested in pursuing a career as a scientist, he knew there were certain aspects of science that still intrigued him – primarily figuring out how things worked – and IP law “was a way to carry on doing those things I enjoyed but within a far more commercial context.”
That said, law school opened his eyes to a host of other practice areas, including equity and trusts, and land law, that also appealed to him. So, he set out on his training contract at Bristows with an open mind in terms of the practice area he wanted to qualify in before coming full circle and pursuing the IP route. In his work as a patent litigator, Sam deals with clients who are technologically sophisticated and have complicated products that they want to protect the intangible value of. “They want to talk to people who understand what they’re selling and what they do as a business,” he explains. His work tends to be as much about the technology as it is about the law. Sam qualified in August 2020 and, despite it looking very different from how he had envisaged – swap celebratory drinks out at a bar with a night in due to the pandemic’s lockdown – he describes it as a “huge milestone”. Sam confirms – laughing – that “there is no magical book that tells you how to be a lawyer when you qualify.”
Describing the difference between life as a trainee and life as a qualified lawyer, Sam highlights the importance of using the extra time that comes with having fewer cases as a newly qualified solicitor to “immerse yourself in the specific case at hand”. He adds: “You have time to figure out what two to three sentences of a court document mean, for example, or to read an entire case because it looks like it is valuable to the work you’re doing on another case” – this opportunity to explore a case in much more detail often doesn’t present itself at trainee level.
Sam has also enjoyed looking back on how far he has come over the years. “It’s great to take stock of all the knowledge, skills and experience that I have accumulated. That’s one of the most fulfilling things to think about.”
Covid-19, Brexit and AI
“Competence becomes assumed” when you qualify, Sam explains. As such it becomes even more important to stay up to date with the law and its changes. Having a sound understanding of how the business and legal worlds interlink and the regular changes to law is crucial to becoming a successful lawyer. The impact of covid-19 and Brexit, while obvious talking points, can be a great place to start and are impossible to ignore.
The way the law is drafted at the moment means you have to be a human to be an inventor.
Speaking about the pandemic’s effect on Bristows, Sam comments on the resilience of the firm’s sector focus – technology and life sciences. “One of the big issues at the moment, is the IP waiver of vaccine technology,” which could have a significant impact on the pharmaceutical sector. Delving into the issue further, Sam says: “The complexity is that not all of these aspects are protected by patents – for example, a lot of it is confidential know-how, which can’t be protected.”
Alongside the pandemic, the sector has also been dealing with a “raft of changes to certain IP rights,” as a result of Brexit, “which lead to a short uptake in work for IP rights that were governed by EU law – for example, design law had an overhaul in January and some of the ramifications are still being ironed out,” Sam explains. However, Brexit has not had the same level of impact on the patents’ sphere because “the European Patent Convention, which governs how European patents work, is independent of the EU, so the UK is still part of that.”
Meanwhile, moving away from covid-19 and Brexit, another hot topic in the patent sphere is simply: (AI). Referencing a case from last year, which involved a man applying for patents on behalf of an AI machine he claimed could invent things, Sam explains that “the way the law is drafted at the moment means you have to be a human to be an inventor.”
With technology continuing to advance at a rapid pace, it does start to bring up interesting questions. Sam muses over the following: “What are we rewarding with the patent – the invention itself or the intellectual labour that goes into it, which a machine isn’t capable of?”
The three Cs – curiosity, critical thinking, communication
To be a top solicitor in this practice area, it’s important to develop a genuine curiosity for the subject matter – being able to question the impact that artificial intelligence, for example, might have on the IP and patent sphere is a crucial aspect of the job. Sam also highlights the need for candidates interested in IP law to be “big critical thinkers”. He says: “Candidates need to be able to look at a problem, start breaking it down and be logical about the way they plan to solve it.”
As well as being a curious, critical thinker, good communication skills are also key. “It’s important that candidates are capable of expressing ideas clearly because ultimately that’s the output of the work,” he explains. But how do aspiring lawyers know whether they will enjoy working in IP law? Becoming a lawyer is not an easy road to navigate so Sam advises candidates to speak to as many people working in the practice area as possible about their route into practice and what makes them tick. Candidates should also find some experience before committing themselves to a career they might not enjoy.
“It is difficult to know whether you will enjoy or even be good at a job without having experienced it.” Reflecting on his own journey to becoming a solicitor, Sam encourages aspiring lawyers to be honest with themselves when identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out what makes him tick “was a really important process,” and a “key part of the training contract application process,” he concludes.