In the Champions League of the patent attorneys
: When it comes to patent disputes, companies often go before German courts and local specialists can earn a lot of money from them. Our league table shows who is best at their job.
If an American company picks a fight with a Japanese competitor, they occasionally end up having it out in a German court room. At least, that’s what happened in the dispute between the pharmaceutical manufacturers Merck (USA) and Shionogi (Japan). In 2015, both parties met at the District Court in Düsseldorf. But why? When it comes to patent disputes, companies can choose a court practically anywhere in the world – and they often end up choosing Germany. “Düsseldorf, Mannheim and Munich are top of the popularity list in Europe for settling patent disputes”, says Gisbert Hohagen, Patent Law Attorney at the major law firm Taylor Wessing. There are three reasons for this: The process is relatively quick in Germany, taking on average around 12 to 14 months. It’s affordable – in Great Britain process experts cost three to four times as much as in Germany and in the USA up to ten times as much! German judges are seen to be more experienced and specialized, which makes the process more predictable from the point of view of the claimant.
Furthermore, if you take legal action in a different country, you run a considerable risk. Occasionally judges will declare a patent invalid, meaning nobody benefits from it. “Great Britain is a real patent graveyard”, says one famous patent law attorney. However, in Germany it is not permissible to declare patents invalid in the civil courts during such disputes.
This means that 63 percent of all European patent disputes end up in German patent courts, says Hohagen from Taylor Wessing. Two thirds of his clients are from abroad.
But which attorneys are really worth the money they’re paid? Who has the best reputation amongst their colleagues? An exclusive league table, published in the magazine Wirtschafts-Woche provides the answers to these questions.
890 attorneys are assessed
In the first round of the selection process, the Handelsblatt Research Institute (HRI) identified 269 patent law attorneys and 621 patent attorneys. What’s the difference? The former are lawyers and the latter usually have a scientific or technical background. All those selected took part in a peer group survey and gave each other points. They were not allowed to give themselves points. The jury created the list of recommendations from the lawyers and attorneys with the most points.
The jury itself was made up of corporate lawyers including Franziska Preissinger from Novartis, Stephan Wolke from Thyssen-Krupp Intellectual Property, Stephan Gürtler from the Merck Group and Hermann Kremer from Audi. Achim Schunder, Head of Magazines at the publisher C.H.Beck represented the scientific side. In the end, the league table included 20 patent law attorneys from 15 law firms, and 21 patent attorneys from 18 companies – and yes, Hohagen from Taylor Wessing made it onto the list. He and his colleges are currently looking after clients from two industries in particular: mobile communications and pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, they have recently been meeting more and more patent exploiters in court. These are companies such as Nokia, that don’t manufacture much themselves any more, but hold and licence self-developed patents.
A troll’s business model
Companies who have never manufactured anything, but who hold patents they have bought up are known to insiders as “trolls”. This includes experts from the private equity company IP Com from the Munich suburb of Pullach. In 2007, the company bought up 1000 mobile communications patents from Bosch and sued companies all over the world just to generate patent revenue.
This may be morally questionable, but it is of little importance in court. It also doesn’t matter whether a patent has been infringed on purpose or inadvertently. Specifically in the mobile communications industry, there is a huge portfolio of patents that are very similar, says Christian Harmsen, a lawyer at Bird & Bird in Düsseldorf. Patent judges only check if a product is making use of a patent.
Harmsen recently represented the former global market leader in mobile phones in a much noted dispute: Nokia accused the iPhone manufacturer Apple of infringing 32 patents, including technologies for display, videos and software. Last May, the companies settled the dispute and agreed on licence payments. The legal effort was well worth it for Nokia and Apple has since paid them 1.7 billion USD. These types of disputes can be lucrative for specialists. Salaried lawyers charge up to €250 per hour, partners up to €550 and the top stars earn up to €900 per hour. Patent attorneys charge up to €300 per hour, making them considerably more affordable.
The Inventors’ Attorney
Biologist Carolin Wollschlaeger works with patent
Ms Wollschlaeger, you studied biotechnology. What was it about the subject that captivated you?
A biotechnology degree is similar to a classic biology degree, however we didn’t look at anything that was bigger than a fungus. That basically meant no plants and no animals, instead we concentrated more on technical and procedural aspects. Choosing biotechnology was quite a spontaneous decision. I actually wanted to study law, but biology was the only science subject that really interested me at school. Medicine was also an idea as my mother’s a doctor. In the end I had to choose between biology and law and for personal reasons I chose to study biotechnology in Aachen. There was a lot of gut feeling involved.
And did that gut feeling pay off? Was it the right decision?
I never regretted it even though there’s a lot to be said against a biology degree. Although the content of the course was very varied, without a doctorate in the subject it’s pretty worthless. Biologists don’t have a great reputation. When you’re studying for your degree, there isn’t much independent thought required and far too little reflection takes place. I was busy making sure that I planned my examination dates strategically so that I’d pass the course well and I had to learn a lot by heart. It doesn’t mean much to graduate with top marks. Moreover it’s quite difficult to get a job later on with this type of degree.
What do biologists usually do these days after graduating?
Normally they go into research. A doctorate is essential otherwise there’s no point even doing the degree. Stopping after a Masters is optimistic and that’s why most graduates go into academic research. There’s also the option of working for pharmaceutical companies, but biologists experience a lot of competition from chemists in that field. There aren’t many bio-specific jobs unless you become a product manager for labware.
What made you train as a patent attorney?
During the last year of my doctorate I realized that I just couldn’t imagine life in a laboratory. In general it was fun, but as I’d always been interested in law I did some research to see what other options there were.
How do you become a patent attorney?
There’s a German apprenticeship and a European apprenticeship. Usually you apply to a patent law firm and work for 26 months with a patent attorney. You work directly on cases, draw up applications and correspond with applicants and authorities. At the same time you study general law at Hagen Open University. Finally you spend eight months at the Patent and Trademark Office and at the Federal Patent Court in Munich where you learn about the work of patent and trademark examiners and the Federal Patent Court. The European apprenticeship runs parallel to the German one. It lasts three years and is very similar in terms of content and structure.
You completed your Bachelor and Masters degrees and then went on to do your doctorate in France. Now you’re adding an apprenticeship that lasts over three years. You need a lot of patience to get through it all, don’t you?
Yes, that’s true, but it’s not so badly paid – in fact it’s quite good for biologists. Anyway in this area it’s not unusual to finish your apprenticeship in your early to mid-thirties.
What does your work actually involve?
We write patent applications. Inventors from companies and universities come to us and present their inventions. We create a patent application and make it clear what exactly it is that has been discovered. We take any possible variations of the invention into consideration and send the application to the patent office. Furthermore, we look after applications at the German and European patent office that have been prepared by foreign colleagues. At the patent office, applications are checked based on a search. Our colleagues in the office check whether the registered idea really is new and inventive. The search report contains formal and content-related objections. We then work on these reports making things clear and answering assessments – and so it goes on. The whole process takes around two years, but it can take 18 years. Once the patent has been issued, we deal with bringing the product onto the market, which European states it may be sold in and which patent-related requirements have to be met in these cases. In extreme cases we have to appear in court to defend the patent associated with the product.
Why are biologists – or scientists and engineers in general – important in this area of expertise?
Patent attorneys are never ‘just’ lawyers. It’s all about the technology. We have to describe in detail and understand the invention we are being presented with. That means we need a scientific background.
What element of your degree has been of most benefit in your job?
Definitely my language skills. If you can’t speak English, you’ll be totally lost in this job. It’s also mainly technical English and the European files that I receive are 95% English. In terms of content, the work is extremely varied – at the moment, for example, I’m dealing with a case concerning genetically modified plants, antibody tests and bacteria that create an adhesive. A foundation in biology is important, but I can read up on the rest. Usually I process patent applications for the area of biology as that’s where my strengths lie.
What is the most fascinating thing about your job?
I really enjoy using my languages skills productively. If, like me, you can speak German, English and French, you can progress well at a European level. But you should also enjoy language and its interpretations. In the law firm we get a new case to deal with every day, which keeps thing varied. I also think it’s great that I get research results presented to me and I’m allowed to make the best out of them