Name: Charlie French
Firm: Bristows LLP
University: University of Cambridge
Degree: Natural sciences
The life sciences sector combines a range of legal practice areas, demanding expert advice from lawyers with detailed knowledge of the relevant trends and innovations in areas including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, healthcare, MedTech, veterinary and food. Solicitors in this area often specialise in either contentious (eg, patent litigation or contractual disputes) or non-contentious (eg, commercial and corporate) work. In addition to commercial and IP advice and litigation, life sciences lawyers provide regulatory guidance on everything from approval, labelling and marketing of drugs to competition law issues.
The art of negotiation is a key skill for any lawyer, but there are some things you shouldn’t have to compromise on – for example, your career. Charlie French took this sentiment and ran with it, expertly drawing upon all the aspects of her education that she loved most to form a successful career in law.
“I specialise in intellectual property and, in particular, patent litigation,” Charlie tells us. But how did Charlie build her career to become a senior associate at Bristows LLP, “a firm that specialises in life sciences and technology”?
Charlie describes her route into life sciences patent litigation as one that “a lot of people follow in this area of law”. However, perhaps the less typical aspect of Charlie’s journey is that she discovered her passion early on, and has since carefully crafted a career around her specialised interests. Reflecting upon her early education, Charlie explains that “at school I was drawn to both humanities subjects and sciences, so I studied English literature alongside biology, chemistry and maths at A level”. While that academic cocktail may sound unusual for some, for Charlie it was perfect.
These A levels took Charlie to the University of Cambridge, where she continued with her scientific studies. “I loved the subject of natural sciences,” she says. “I loved learning about the intricacies of biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics.” But science alone wasn’t enough: “I missed the essay writing and the close analysis of language,” Charlie admits. “I didn’t see myself following a lifetime in the lab and started looking at other careers where I could use that scientific knowledge.”
Enter the legal world: “I came across patent law in a module as part of my degree on commercialising science and realised that this might be a way to use my knowledge and interest in science and marry that up with my other skills.” From there, the wheels were set in motion. “I started seeking work experience, talking to people who worked in the area and soon realised patent law was going to be a really good option for me.”
“I didn’t see myself following a lifetime in the lab and started looking at other careers where I could use that scientific knowledge”
Charlie completed her training contract at magic circle firm Linklaters where she had a clear vision for herself as an aspiring solicitor and realised it was important to take control of her own future. “One of the important things I realised when I started out was that I needed to be quite motivated and driven to ensure I got the training experience I wanted,” explains Charlie. After a few seat swaps, her seat plan eventually included intellectual property, competition and corporate law, as well as a client secondment, all of which have stood her in good stead for a career as a life sciences lawyer.
What Charlie most enjoys about her job as a patent litigator at Bristows is that “no two cases are the same – the beginning of each new case is always a learning curve”. A lot of Charlie’s work is in the English courts, preparing a case to go to litigation. This may be “acting for a patent owner who wants to enforce their patent against an alleged infringer or for a party that’s seeking to revoke a patent because they believe it’s invalid.”
The topics covered in this type of litigation can vary, Charlie explains, “so I’ve worked on cases relating to small molecule pharmaceuticals, antibodies and antibody technology, gene cloning and cell expression systems, drug delivery devices and lots of things in between”. She continues: “In terms of the clinical area, I’ve done cases relating to types of dementia, cancer, neurological disorders, inflammatory disorders like psoriasis and rare genetic disorders as well – it can be really varied.
Variation isn’t the only draw of the job; it’s the intellectual development that comes with it. “I’ve got a background in life sciences, but no one can know everything,” Charlie says. “So, at the start of each case there’s this process of immersing yourself in the science, speaking to experts and trying to understand what’s going on in the relevant field at the relevant time. It’s exciting, the legal issues differ and they’re always intertwined with scientific topics, so it’s an intellectual challenge.”
One of the perks of working in patent law is the international network Charlie has built over the years: “I’ve got a global network of lawyers in different countries. There’s almost always an international element to these cases.” Charlie explains: “A lot of the work I do is coordinating global or European litigation strategies for clients. I’ll be working alongside lawyers in other countries to develop the case there, working on the expert evidence with them, making sure the cases are aligned to ensure a global approach that works for the client. That’s a really nice aspect of my job.”
As with most lawyers we talk to, Charlie highlights the inevitability of busy periods as the least enjoyable aspect of her work. “I’m lucky,” she says, “I work for a firm that really prioritises work/life balance so that’s not the expectation – it’s not what we do every day.”
When things do get busy, however, for instance during preparation for trial or when a deadline is looming, Charlie states: “I think that’s where the importance of having a good team comes in.” She goes onto explain: “Having good team morale really gets you through those periods and you realise that actually, it’s exciting and the time flies quite quickly.”
A solid team isn’t the only thing to help negate these more challenging periods; Charlie advises that a quick break for some fresh air and a walk can also work wonders. “Even when everything seems impossible and it looks like you’re going to be in the office until the early hours, just going for a walk at lunch time and taking a break is really important.”
The legal industry is currently going through a period of rapid change, and Charlie suggests that a significant portion of this change surrounds “what working life should look like as a solicitor post pandemic”.
“Obviously we were all working at home for a long time and a lot of good things came out of that in terms of flexible working practices,” Charlie observes. “I think particularly for working parents, and those who have interests and responsibilities outside of work, the ability to work from home and be a bit more flexible in the times that they work has been really important, but that now needs to be balanced against coming back into the office.”
It’s important, Charlie explains, that firms are “making sure that we have a good collaborative environment in the office, that training is good, and that trainees and junior associates in particular have access to seeing how senior lawyers work”. This isn’t just something worthy of note for those already in the profession but, as Charlie notes, “something that’s quite important to consider when you’re looking at different law firms and considering a career in law”. As an aspiring lawyer, Charlie recommends you consider “what would suit you and your learning experience better”.
“It’s a really exciting time in patent law,” Charlie remarks, referring to the introduction of the new Unified Patent Court in Europe. Explaining what this’ll mean for the practice area, Charlie says: “The current system is that if you want to obtain a patent for a drug or a product, you must obtain a separate patent in each jurisdiction in Europe that’s of interest, and then you have to litigate all of those separately in each jurisdiction. This new court will enable you to bring a single action covering a lot of those jurisdictions together.”
Speaking of the new court in June 2023, Charlie noted: “It’s just opened, there’s no case law yet and the first cases have only just been filed but we’re all excited to follow that and see what it means for our clients!”
"You learn from doing as a solicitor so just get involved and enjoy it"
If there’s one piece of wisdom Charlie can pass onto aspiring solicitors, it’s that: “The number one skill you need for this practice area is intellectual curiosity and being up for a challenge.” The work of a life sciences solicitor involves “getting on top of complicated technology and being proactive in learning what’s going on”.
Other key skills Charlie highlights are time management and forward planning. She says: “Our cases generally last a year or so and deadlines can seem very far off at the beginning of a case, but they come up very quickly and a lot of work needs to be done. You need to plan but you also need to be able to adapt as things change."
If you’re thinking about going into law, Charlie recommends that you “look beyond the glossy brochures and get a sense of the culture of different firms and areas of law”. She adds: “I think even different departments within the same law firm can be quite different based on the type of work they do, so try to understand as much as you can and get a sense of what you want to do, what you enjoy and what interests you.”
Above all, the most important lesson Charlie has learnt throughout her legal journey is to be proactive. She emphasises the importance of “taking ownership of things and really taking control of your own destiny”.
“Don’t wait to be asked to do something… you’re not going to be perfect to start with but put your hand up, volunteer for things, make suggestions and ask questions. You learn from doing as a solicitor so just get involved and enjoy it.”