Friday, 27 July 2012

Non-law first degrees: which, if any, is the best buy?

Many people are thinking
about their choice of degree
at a fairly tender age ...
I've just been reading an interesting little piece on the UKSC Blog (UKSC being "UK Supreme Court") on whether it's better to enter legal practice with a law degree or without one. In some areas, getting started is well-nigh impossible without a strong non-law basis. For example, anyone wishing to practise as a patent attorney is pretty well incapacitated without a degree-level science background.  The only people who don't need to know anything about science and technology to make their way in the field of patents are, in the UK anyway, the judiciary, who can sit as Chancery judges in patent cases and indeed hear appeals as far as the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court without any possessing any specific or general scientific base.  This lack of scientific education is shared by most members of the Court of Justice of the European Union, but that's another story.

What I'm thinking about right now is this: both academic and practical legal education goes out of date pretty quickly; that's why continuing legal education is so important.  Science and technology change too, but within the IP community there is less need to force practitioners to retrain regularly: the nature of their work and the separate need for expert witnesses sees to that.  But in terms of getting a foothold in one of the IP professions and then climbing the ladder, what sort of non-law first degree works best? Does one opt for a white-hot new technology in a rapidly evolving field, where everything is new but practical applications may be uncertain or unknown? Or perhaps a mature technology is best, where things are more stable in terms of markets for products and processes and there's a regular flow of incremental innovation? Or again, something more mathematical, as a better means of cultivating analytical habits of thought?

It would be good to hear from readers as to which non-law degree they reckon to be a "best buy" for the next generations of IP practitioners.


  1. It is a difficult question because, to my knowledge, most (if not all!) practionners 'fall' into the profession rather than deliberately embark upon it at the time of choosing a technical degree.

    In that context, and as one of the few exceptions to the professional norm (i.e. without a formal technical qualification, CPA, and EPA as of this year, both quals through respective full examinations), I would opine for the 'mature' or 'generic' technological degree version: a good, wide-ranging technical aptitude and knowledge is absolutely required for the job (I was lucky to have acquired a substanbtial corpus of knowledge and practice in mech.eng and ICT by the time I fell into IP), but unless you are going to be working consistently and quasi-exclusively for a 'white-hot hotbed of IP' company/client, "ultra-specialisation" may prove a disadvantage for more general (or shoudl that be 'generic') practice.

  2. I regret to say that PhDs are not the best qualification for a patent agents. Such people are too academically gifted to show due deference to inventors and the ones that look for jobs as patent attorneys have no entrepreneurial flare. Physics is a great choice (no prices for guessing why)

  3. I was one of those unpaid EPI members of an examination committee for the EQE for one full period (after that “no pay, no work”). In the course of that I saw a large number of handwritten (but legible) anonymous answers. One tendency was striking in the problems people had with the technical subject matter at hand: it was not a language problem, but it was a problem with correctly classifying technical phenomena. This meant that they had difficulties when trying to establish a broad independent claim, and they had difficulties when whittling it down due to prior art. Perhaps they had not even discovered that if you remove a feature from a claim it becomes broader. In other words, they did not have a concept of which phenomena are more general than others, of the hierarchies within phenomena, and how to define phenomena by words.

    Fundamentally, this is a problem with the way that institutions of higher education structure the body of knowledge in physics and chemistry in modern times. Most inventions are quite mundane, drawing on physics and chemistry corresponding to a World view of 1900 – one reason why we sometimes find very old prior art. There is hence no doubt that a broad founding in “classical” physics and chemistry will make a better general patent attorney than a highly trained specialist. A flair (sic) for structuring phenomena helps a lot. And the most important advantage of a general patent attorney is that he or she is permitted to ask stupid questions, is permitted to ask questions so as to smuggle generalisations into claims. Had the patent attorney also been a specialist, it would have been a battle of wits. The inventor must never be made to feel that someone has a better grasp of the invention than he or she has. But obviously we all know that we have. But we are not there to capitalise on the invention, we are there to help the client to get the best protection for the idea, a protection that also catches attempts to cirumvent the invention. And I have had first-hand experience that it would never do to use an invention for a generalised problem, so I can warn clients to stick to their trade. In my view and experience, the best single item of training for becoming a patent attorney is to file oppositions. For a period of 18 years I regularly taught these truths, but I can’t say it made much of an impact.

    George Brock-Nannestad

  4. Fascinating to read two comments to the effect that a patent attorney should be deferential to the inventor, and perhaps even hide a better understanding of the subject than the inventor has.

    Is there something "special" about inventors that makes this an important issue, or is it just another way of saying that one should not rub clients up the wrong way?

  5. Yes, Mark, inventors are different. They may not be the main client contact and may well not be great at expressing the ideas in writing. You need to listen and not make any assumptions. You need to be make them comfortable to change things. You need to extract as much as possible and get the conversation flowing. If you are dealing ith a liaison person you may even need to ensure that your documents have reached the inventor. I have read patents that contain far too much patent agent introduced material. It is often the stuff that causes ambiguity and construction issues as well as things that have to be explained away as obvious errors.

  6. I think the answer is whatever the employers are looking for. In the case of the UK would be a mature or generic science or engineering degree.

    That is because most UK firms are very traditional and will likely be prejudiced against 'new-fangled' degrees - even if they are on the EPO approved list. It also makes business sense: for the most part UK firms are 'post box + EPO tweaking' agencies for foreign clients, while some firms have a mix of small local clients. Its best to be a generalist for this kind of work, as you need to turn your hand to everything.

    In the US a more specialised technical background helps. There are a LOT more big high-tech direct clients there and a lot more drafting work. You could easily spend all your time in one technology niche.

    I've heard different things about PHDs..some for, some against (I don't have one myself). One thing I will say, certain clients - e.g. some university professors and some Asian organisations, tend to have more respect for you if you have a PHD.

  7. An excellent topic - other than the obvious patent example or perhaps, ata push, a clinical negligence lawyer, where a medical or science degree might assist, I think it's largely irrelevant Some lawyers are more arts oriented and others more academically inclined. the key thing is that dry legal knowledge will only ever get you so far. Lawyers need to deal with clients and need people and negotiating skills, whether they have a science or law degree or other background.