A Future in Chemistry - Your career starts here
Old Bailey

Patent Attorney

Darren Smyth

I am a specialist lawyer who focuses on chemistry-based patenting cases.

00:22 Developing new products requires a huge investment of time and money,

00:29 and the theory is that companies won’t invest that time and money

00:35 if as soon as they launch a product somebody else is free to come along and copy it.

00:41 A patent is a document that gives the owner a monopoly for twenty years

00:49 for the thing that they have invented.

00:52 If I’m a pharmaceutical company and I come up with a new drug, a new pharmaceutical,

00:57 then a patent attorney like me will write a thing called a patent application,

01:03 which will describe the thing which has been invented,

01:06 so the new chemical compound and what its pharmaceutical effect is,

01:11 and then that gets filed as a patent application and then examined by patent officers all around the world,

01:18 and when each patent office is happy with it, then it gets granted as a patent

01:24 and that gives the holder of the patent

01:27 the right to stop other people from doing the thing that is defined in the patent for twenty years.

01:33 So a patent attorney is a kind of lawyer, but there are different kinds of lawyers in the UK.

01:39 Solicitors and barristers don’t have to be technically specialised,

01:45 whereas patent attorneys are specialised and we practice only in

01:51 the technical field which is related to the academic background that we have,

01:55 so my background is in chemistry, so I deal with things like pharmaceuticals, polymers,

02:01 batteries, food chemistry and that kind of thing.

02:05 I’ve been involved in the patent work for the product which is called Splenda,

02:10 which is a zero-calorie sweetener whose generic name is sucralose

02:15 and this was invented by Tate and Lyle,

02:21 and it was the first time that something that was intensely sweet

02:25 had been discovered that was actually a derivative of sugar itself.

02:36 The chemistry background’s absolutely essential to my daily work as a patent attorney,

02:42 it is absolutely critical to understand what it is that the inventors have done.

02:49 What I really enjoy about my job is the variety,

02:52 I’ll probably be doing something different in the morning from in the afternoon

02:57 and my practice covers a huge variety of different technical subjects.

03:03 Because patents are applied for nationally, all around the world, we have clients all around the world as well.

03:12 So as well as clients in the UK, I have clients in the USA, in Japan, in Australia

03:18 and so maybe not initially,

03:22 but when you become more senior,

03:24 most patent attorneys spend a significant amount of time travelling around the world visiting their clients.

03:35 For me and I think for most people,

03:38 becoming a patent attorney is a combination of two factors.

03:42 We’ve all started off studying a science subject and possibly doing research in it,

03:49 and most of us I think got fed up of that,

03:52 and I got to the stage where I thought if I ran another silica gel column I would probably go mad.

03:58 So I didn’t want to do research any more.

04:01 I think having some research experience is really valuable,

04:05 because I think it helps you to interact with researchers


04:10 who are the inventors that are fundamental to our work.

04:15 But I think it’s quite debateable whether the years spent doing research

04:20 are better spent having done that,

04:22 than having gained experience in the patent profession.

04:26 So I think if you haven’t done the research yet,

04:31 it might be better to try to enter the patent profession straight away.

04:35 But if you have done some research, then I think that research is very valuable.

04:40 When I joined the profession, it wasn’t actually very easy to find out about.

04:46 Not very many university careers departments knew a lot about it,

04:52 and patent firms didn’t have websites in those days either.

04:58 I happened to know about it because my mother had invented something

05:04 when I was a child and had consulted a patent attorney,

05:07 and also when I left university, a friend had become a patent attorney.

05:12 Nowadays I think it’s a lot easier, and I think university careers departments know about the patent profession,

05:18 will have information about it.

05:21 What we look for when we’re looking for potential trainee patent attorneys,

05:26 because it’s very difficult looking at a chemistry graduate and

05:29 deciding whether they’re going to be any good at this job,

05:32 is above all, very good English language skills,

05:37 and of course you have to be interested in the law.

05:40 You may not have done anything to show that before you enter the profession,

05:46 but I do think you need to think very carefully about whether the law is for you.

“It does take a long time to become a patent attorney – typically over 4 years, but if you like your science degree subject, language and law, as I do, then it is the perfect profession.”

How did I get started?

I did chemistry at university, and had a friend that had become a patent attorney, as well as my mother consulting one when I was younger (after she invented something), so I knew a bit about the job.

Career progression

It got to a point where I was no longer enjoying research, so I investigated patent law as an option. If you don't want to be in a lab but want to use chemistry, have good English language skills and an interest in the law, it's a good choice.

Skills used

Scientific and Technical Knowledge, Communication, Data Handling and Research, Team Worker, Organisation, IT and Technology

“I have clients in the USA, Japan and Australia. Maybe not initially but when you become more senior, most patent attorneys spend a significant amount of time travelling the world.”