Why does E equal mc²? We've absolutely no idea, but Sterne Kessler's lawyers will know the answer...
ATTORNEYS walking the hallways of DC-based IP specialist Sterne Kessler lead a double life: skilled patent lawyers by day, and science and engineering savants by – well, by day too. Sterne Kessler has built its brand around that model, hiring attorneys with technical backgrounds, ensuring its IP advice comes from those thoroughly in-the-know. Advanced degrees and PhDs abound, plus plenty of relevant career experience: "They bring to the team a depth of legal and technical analysis that very few firms have," says managing director Mike Ray.
The firm works in a wide range of industries, including computer software, engineering, and life sciences, servicing some very well known clients – Apple, adidas and Google, to name a few. Not bad for a group of roughly 130 attorneys, but it's understandable, considering the firm's top Chambers USA ranking for patent prosecution in DC. This practice has existed since Sterne Kessler's founding in 1978, and today there are also busy patent litigation, patent office litigation, appellate, and trade commission teams, plus a trademark, advertising and anti-counterfeiting practice.
The emphasis on specialized know-how means that newbies are affiliated with a specific group from the beginning of the summer program. Litigation-designated associates solely handle contentious IP matters, while those in the electrical, mechanical, and biotech groups can experience both patent litigation and patent prosecution (applying for patent status). All have a hand in the firm's inter partes review (IPR) work, which it calls patent office litigation.
Biotech, electrical or mechanical newbies are allocated a point person whose “responsibility is that you have enough work.” But “after two years it's more about building relationships and opening yourself up to interesting projects.” Tasks are similar across all three teams and matters tend to fall into three categories: patent prosecution, opinion writing and patent office litigation. For prosecution, associates “write the patent application, discuss it with the inventor, and then negotiate with the patent office.” As “the responsible attorney” on many of their cases, associates get client contact and plenty of writing, with some second-chairing depositions for IPRs. “Clients give us more room to do research, analysis and strategy – it isn't a paperwork sweatshop.”
“It isn't a paperwork sweatshop.”
A single coordinator oversees all workflow in the litigation department, but juniors are also free to reach out for assignments, provided they clear it with the coordinator first. “The bulk of matters are district court litigation,” but with “a good amount of IPR litigation.” A wider brief means the team “works hand in hand with the prosecution teams. Even if they didn't work on that patent they may be knowledgeable about the specific technical details.” Juniors had “drafted pleadings, did discovery document review, and then started on expert reports, working to prepare them for deposition.” Being “such a close knit team,” associates didn't “feel excluded from anything on the case.” Less positively, “there is an ebb and flow of work, so if you're not staffed on a robust case it can be piecemeal work, taking what you can in the form of 'spot projects.' That can be pretty draining.” They pointed out that “it's hard as a young associate to jump into a case that's been going on for years.”
“A close knit team.”
“On one side it's a group of highly intellectual scientists, but at the same time it's a very down to earth place.” Similar evaluations were made by all sources, who jumped to inform us of the “communal atmosphere.” The image of a law firm “where the partner yells at you and you can't walk into someone's office to shoot the shit – that's not here. We are serious and good at what we do but the atmosphere is laid back.” Suits and ties are one casualty of that ethos; the dress code is “not quite what you'd wear to the bar or the club, but it's casual.”
In “working with partners daily,” sources found their superiors to be “very open and approachable. If I have an issue, I feel comfortable walking into their office and asking for five minutes – I've never been shunned.” In fact, “you know all the partners and they all know you – there are no associates hidden away in a random office somewhere.”
“You know all the partners and they all know you.”
In a concerted effort, the firm “pushes partners to keep their doors open” and “tries to create an atmosphere that is not too stuffy, or critical, or competitive.” In the same breath, associates mentioned their winter retreat at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. It provided “speeches on the state of the market and sessions determining how to modify the firm for the better,” but also “plenty of team-building too. On top of all the meetings there are events and parties,” plus “paintballing, a tour of the whiskey distillery, caving and a bowling alley.” A summer trip to see the Nationals play baseball also comes at the firm's expense, plus there's a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains every few years. That even includes a cook-out at retired name partner Sam Fox's farm. Beyond that, lawyers occasionally wet their whistles, but associates described “a more family-centered approach,” rather than “a party scene.”
“An atmosphere that is not too stuffy, or critical, or competitive.”
All attorneys reside in an office on New York Avenue – it's recently been renovated, and according to associates “it's pretty awesome.” From the outside, it's the shell of an old bus station, complete with art-deco façade. Inside, visitors will find it to be “really modern and very open. There are nice conference rooms with smart boards and integrated technology.” For unwinding, there's a “cafeteria area with a foosball table and ping pong. There's a barista bar too – it's not just a coffee pot behind a bar, it's these crazy-expensive machines which can make any coffee you can think of.” As attorneys slurp their pumpkin-spiced-macha-frappa-skinny-vegan-lattes, one imagines conversation turning to the firm's best known piece of trivia. The 1990s film True Lies was filmed within the building, bringing the Austrian Oak himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, swaggering through the hallways.
Training & Development
Associates' “point person” serves as their mentor, “if and when I need them.” In addition, associates are paired up with a “buddy” of a similar level “who you feel more comfortable talking with.” Sterne Kessler also launched a career coach program in 2014 to connect juniors with partners outside of their practice group. “When they hire associates they envision them being at the partner table with them. It's absolutely not guaranteed, but the ultimate goal is to allow people to work, grow and progress so that they could contribute as partner.”
Newbies kick off with two weeks' training on firm systems and the basics of patent prosecution. Thereafter, monthly practice group meetings offer discussion of legal issues and the opportunity for associates to present upon specific topics. In biotech, associates are “taught by a senior partner throughout the first few years, which functions a lot like a college class.”
Pro bono is pretty low key at Sterne Kessler. We weren't surprised when one associate told us: “I don't know anyone who has done pro bono.” But it does exist, and for example lawyers in the past have helped Native American tribes with IP cases. Even participating associates admitted that “as it's centered around IP, the work we can do is limited.” Associates felt that when it came to pro bono, “the firm doesn't push us hard in that direction,” while noting that “our concerns have been heard, they're thinking about ways to work around it.” Since our calls, we heard that associates have taken on non-IP matters including immigration and family issues, among others.
“The work we can do is limited.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 1,000 approx.
- Average per attorney: 6.4
Hours & Compensation
Associates can choose their billable target to become bonus-eligible: 1,900 or 2,000 hours, though associates thought that “most people go with 1,900 hours.” Some viewed it as “risky to raise the bar for yourself and risk criticism,” and associates did report that some colleagues fell shy of their target, particularly in litigation – but most found at least one of the two to be achievable.
“Most people go with 1,900 hours.”
Interviewees tended to put in around ten hours a day at the office, with the majority leaving between 6pm and 7pm, but associates lauded the flexibility they were afforded. “I have colleagues who aren't early people and they consistently come into the office between 10am and 11am and leave later – there's nobody waiting to see you punch your card in.” An associate described being “able to go to the gym, eat dinner at home, hang out with friends and I don't work most weekends.” There was “nobody expecting me to respond to my phone at 2am – it's healthy enough.”
Women make up only 28% of the associates at Sterne Kessler – “there aren't many female associates.” In the firm's defense, science and engineering already suffers a gender imbalance, and 27% of the firm's partners are female – a better proportion than at most firms. Sterne Kessler's ethnic minority representation is good, with minority attorneys making up a quarter of both associates and partners. Our sources noticed “a good amount of Asian Americans compared to other groups.” Juniors could recall a number of initiatives: a “women's litigation group,” a mock trial organized by women's advancement non-profit Chiefs in Intellectual Property (ChIPs), and a “diversity day, to share experiences with each other.” Hiring director Peter Jackman also tells us that "one of the new initiatives for 2017 has us partnering with Howard University and doing a rotation with their College of Pharmacy."
“There aren't many female associates.”
Strategy & Future
The firm increasingly works on inter partes reviews: quasi-litigious cases overseen by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board. Since a shift in the law in 2012, it's been the hot area of patent law, and a dynamic one at that. “The firm is always working to stay up to date with the changes to IPR and the concerning law. It feels like a new case comes out daily and you have to stay up on that.” Fortunately the firm's “a market leader on this work” – and has even written one of the first books on the subject. Managing director Mike Ray is keen not to get carried away, though: “We think that it is important to maintain a balance between patent preparation and prosecution, court and ITC litigation, and patent office litigation. We are subject to the work that our clients want us to do – but we try to maintain that balance."
Chambers Associate interview with Sterne Kessler managing director Mike Ray
Chambers Associate: Last year when we spoke to you, you talked about the balance the firm struck between three areas, patent prosecution, patent litigation and patent office litigation – has that balance changed over the last year?
Mike Ray: It's about the same, and we think it's important to maintain a balance. Some patent-focused firms – you might call them patent boutiques – lost their way by focusing too much on litigation. We think that it is important to maintain a balance between patent preparation and prosecution, court and ITC litigation, and patent office litigation. We are subject to the work that our clients want us to do – but we try to maintain that balance. Having a prosecution practice allows us to hire and retain people with strong engineering and scientific backgrounds and who want to stay close to the technology. When those same people later get involved in litigation, they bring to the team a depth of legal and technical analysis that very few firms have.
CA: Does the firm's niche focus mean it has to be more flexible?
MR: There was a time when many IP firms were selling themselves as one-stop shops, and I think they got some traction by doing that, at least for a while, but our clients want domain expertise. But you're right, if intellectual property has a downturn it could affect us more than it would affect a general firm, for example– but we have stayed strong by having diversity within the areas of intellectual property, and we represent diverse industries. For example, we're well balanced in serving clients in the electronics, software, chemical, pharmaceutical, and consumer products industries. It's rare that all industries would be down at the same time.
CA: What is the firm's strategy going forward? Does the firm aim to grow in size?
MR: I think we have historically had around 3% growth, and I expect we will continue that growth. Law firms are different businesses; conflicts of interest can limit growth. But we are in a good position in that we're at a size we like, but we still have the room to grow. We currently have a single office — in Washington, DC — but have considered expansion into other geographies.
We've considered both domestic and international expansion. For example, we have strong client bases in Silicon Valley, Boston (a hotbed for biotechnology), and Germany (a growing venue for patent enforcement). We spend a lot of time travelling to these places but have no immediate plans for offices there. That could change. If the time comes that we need to open an office outside of Washington, we'll do it.
CA: Apart from their obvious expertise in their specific subject area – do you feel that there are advantages in having a firm of science and engineering graduates? Do you think it differentiates you?
MR: Absolutely. First, we have an infrastructure uniquely adapted to support the special needs of a cutting-edge intellectual property practice. This includes having a large staff to support our lawyers, patent agents and technical specialists, to help them to efficiently deliver work product to our clients. Second, our culture is one of team work and collaboration — one that engineers and scientists fit into well. And the scientific and engineering expertise and niche legal domain focus allow us to go deep substantively in our work product, producing clear and persuasive legal documents.
On another note, we tend to interface with clients through technical people in IP departments who are often trained patent attorneys. They take great comfort in talking to people who understand their world and day-to-day realities. Having depth in science and technology isgreat for our client relationships. This definitely differentiates us from general firms and from many other IP firms.
CA: To those considering patent law in general – what would you say was the appeal of it? How would you sell it?
MR: For people who love science and technology, IP law is a fantastic career that allows them stay close to what they love while building an excellent career that offers significant independence and upward mobility. In fact, I think when working as an engineer or a scientist it's easy to be pigeon holed in a particular technology. In contrast, a patent attorney sees the cutting edge of innovation in diverse areas every day. We might be working on algorithms for a pacemaker one day and a computer graphics processing unit the next day. Our clients are also diverse—from companies like adidas and Apple to Volkswagen and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. It's refreshing for people to work with a wide range of clients in different industry sectors. Also, it's exciting to walk down the street and see someone wearing a pair of adidas shoes or an Apple watch and to be able to say, "I wrote the patent for that!"
Chambers Associate interview with Sterne Kessler hiring director Peter Jackman
Chambers Associate: Being such a specialized firm, I think it's important we check what the academic requirements are for recruitment. What would you expect to see in each practice group?
Peter Jackman: Since we pride ourselves on being very tech savvy, we want candidates with advanced degrees, especially in the biotech and chemical areas. Although, that's not to say we don't hire masters level candidates. We would like to see advanced degrees in electrical and mechanical candidates, but there aren't as many PhDs. Advanced degrees are preferred apart from our litigation and trademark practices where they are not required. By having advanced degrees, we are better able to understand the technology and innovation behind our clients' IP.
CA: Has the scope of your recruiting changed?
PJ: We are increasing our OCI interview effort; we're broadening our reach further to 5 additional schools, but the annual Patent Law Institute (PLI) program in Chicago is still our primary way to attract candidates.
As you know, law school admissions have been going down; students at the PLI program have gone down by hundreds, so we have focused on broadening our reach to interview as many potential candidates as possible.
We also attend many job fairs at local and not so local universities to try to increase our presence to find people with great technical backgrounds who may not have considered IP as a career. We introduce them to patent law and our firm as a very viable option for their career.
CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
PJ: Well, one of the new initiatives for 2017 has us partnering with Howard University and doing a rotation with their College of Pharmacy.
We've been very fortunate in that we have ranked very well for having minority attorneys. In the biotech and chemical areas, we have a majority of women. We also have a lot of women in leadership roles. For example, the practice group leader of our mechanical group is female.
CA: What do you cover in your interviews?
PJ: They usually last 20-25 minutes, but we wish we had more time to spend with candidates. We talk to them about what is on their resumes, and we want them to tell us about their technical and legal experience. We want to make sure that they ask us questions about Sterne Kessler, about our summer program, and about what they can expect. It is a two-way conversation. We want to gauge their work ethic, their goals for the next few years, what the fit is for our culture, whether they can work well in a team, and if they have the ability to explain their background effectively.
We do not have a high stress environment in our interviews. We just really want to get to know the candidates. But if there is a new patent case, maybe in the US Supreme Court, we will ask if they have had a chance to read it. It's not an interrogation. Generally, we want to engage in casual and effective communication.
Being flexible is key - we don't hire just for one type of work. We hire people with good technical knowledge and broad knowledge of IP, since they may be called on for all sorts of assignments. We want associates with diverse skills, the ability to help with issue-spotting, and the potential to be good counsel to clients.
CA: One associate mentioned being interviewed by a named partner, is that normal practice?
PJ: It is. We typically have several directors interviewing the candidates, and we have former summer associates interview the person as well. We want candidates to get to know the people they will be working with. It is important for me to get input from the directors who have conducted interviews to make sure thecandidate will be a strong part of the team.
CA: Being a relatively small firm, does personality figure more heavily in your assessment of candidates?
PJ: It's certainly an important factor, since our approach to client services is team oriented. We want to make sure candidates have a good personality and an interest in working as part ofa team.
CA: What type of person thrives at the firm?
PJ: People who are detail orientated do well here. This is very important given the technical aspect of our work. Also, good oral communication skills and organizational abilities are needed. Writing skills are also very important – internally in communicating with partners and associates and externally in communicating with clients or judges.
I suggest to students, as far as oral communication goes, getting involved in moot court classes or seizing opportunities to engage in deposition skills courses as smart things to do. On writing, getting on a technical law review can be helpful in learning different writing styles, which will benefit you over the course of your career
Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox P.L.L.C.
1100 New York Avenue NW,
- Head Office: Washington, D.C.
- Number of domestic offices: 1
- Number of international offices: 0
- Worldwide revenue: WND
- Partners (US): 49
- Associates (US): 87
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,100
- 2Ls: $3,400
- Post 3Ls: N/A
- 1Ls hired? Yes
- Split summers offered? CBC
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? N/A
- Summers 2017: 8
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 4 offers, 4 acceptances
Main areas of work
Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox is dedicated to the protection, transfer, and enforcement of intellectual property rights. The firm’s lawyers have the interdisciplinary background needed to develop, protect, and enforce valuable property rights for its clients. Most of Sterne Kessler’s legal professionals hold an advanced level degree, including approximately 55 with a master’s degree and over 55 with a doctorate in science or engineering. The firm’s team of attorneys, registered patent agents, student associates, and technical specialists include some of the country’s most respected practitioners of intellectual property law. The firm was founded in 1978, is based in Washington, D.C., and has grown to be one of the largest and highly regarded IP specialty firms in the United States and abroad.
• Number of 1st year associates: 12
• Number of 2nd year associates: 10
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
American University College of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School, George Washington University School of Law, Loyola University Chicago School of Law (Patent Law Interview “PLI” Program), Howard University School of Law, Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law, University of Maryland School of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
Summer associate profile:
Sterne Kessler seeks students with a bachelor’s degree in science and/or engineering. All applicants must have at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA in undergraduate, graduate, and law school studies. United States Patent and Trademark Office and/or other industry work experience is a plus. Teamwork, motivation, collaboration, work ethic, and universal respect are core values of the firm.
Summer program components:
Each summer associate is assigned a senior-level and junior associate to help acclimate them to the firm and to answer any questions he/she may have during his/her tenure. Summer associates receive a full week of training in IP prosecution and litigation by experienced practitioners before ever taking an assignment. While hiring decisions lay at the practice group level, summer associates often have the opportunity to work on assignments from attorneys in other practice groups. Summer associates attend weekly practice group lunches where substantive topics are discussed and they participate in other professional development and technical training. Over the past several years, the firm has been consistently rated as a “best place to work” based on attorney and staff surveys conducted by The Washington Post and The Washington Business Journal.