“Everyone is on a first-name basis” at Sterne, which has a well-earned reputation as one of DC’s premier IP firms.
Sterne is one the newer kids on the legal block, having been established just over 40 years ago (trust us, it's young by law firm standards). In that time, it has gone from two to 130 attorneys, and has successfully established itself as one of the nation’s preeminent patent prosecution outfits. But don’t just take our word for it. Take a glance at its Chambers USA rankings and you’ll see that it’s the only firm to be top ranked in DCfor its patent prosecution work.
“It’s a place where there’s a push for innovation."
Our interviewees were clear: “It’s a place where there’s a push for innovation and a desire to stay ahead of the curve.” It should come as no surprise that most of Sterne’s attorneys hold an advanced technical degree, including 65 masters’ degrees and more than 50 doctorate degrees in science or engineering. But a prestigious reputation in the IP sector isn’t the only thing that reeled associates into the honeypot. Indeed, highlights such as “drinking time with Paul” - an event where “a partner called Paul teaches everyone about a new drink” - were cited as key cultural draws. “We have hard workers, but it’s more like a family,” one mushy junior summarized.
The 18 second and third-year associates on our list were dispersed roughly equally between the biotechnology & chemical, electronics, mechanical & design, and trial & appellate practice groups. Assignment of work is generally free market, although there is a work coordinator, and juniors also have a direct mentor who keeps track of individual workloads. As a collective, associates also submit weekly updates to aid with work allocation. “In theory it works well, but it’s very hard to make sure everyone is working a similar amount,” one source reflected.Over time though, we were told that juniors also get assigned to clients directly.
“... work directly with inventors."
Sterne’s trial and appellate group accounts for around a third of the firm’s total workload and tackles “an interesting mix” of district court litigation, federal circuit litigation, and PTAB litigation. The group operates over a number of varied sectors including biotech, AI, cannabis, and consumer goods. “As far as patent law goes, it’s interesting to see how different patents work,” one source reflected. Juniors reported on opportunities to “work directly with inventors, attend depositions, and respond to opposing counsel.” One insider reasoned that “I have had a lot of assignments a normal junior wouldn’t get, including the chance to draft expert reports and motions.” While “there’s always doc review,” associates were generally enthusiastic about the work content, agreeing that “there is scope to work on the cases that you want to be working on.” Outside of trial and appellate cases, junior litigators can also get involved in trademark and ITC cases where they are able to further refine drafting skills and where they also often act as second chairs.
Litigation clients: Volkswagen Group of America, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, and Roku. Secured victory before the US Court of International Trade in New York as part of ongoing work for Wirtgen.
In patent prosecution, associates are in regular contact with inventors, handle disclosure meetings, and draft and submit patent applications. In the mechanical and design group “most people start doing prosecution – but eventually you’ll be encouraged to work on litigation,” a source pointed out.For one insider, working within the utilities sector was particularly fulfilling: “Being an engineer as well as a lawyer is what I came here for!” While much of the work comes from large corporations, insiders told us that “we work with a handful of individual clients too.” Much of associates’ time was spent “going back and forth with the patent office,” particularly when faced with a rejection. In those cases, associates have the opportunity to develop arguments against the decision and interview the office’s examiner.
Patent prosecution clients: Apple, Adidas, Capital One. Worked with The Regents of the University of California on patent matters related to their ground-breaking CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology.
Associates at Sterne were in agreement that career development was one of the firm’s strong suits. “There’s a really strong professional development program” and directors are “really invested in your development,” one source explained. Another added: “They say to come to them for anything I need, and they regularly check up on me.” Our interviewees were satisfied with processes around feedback, with semi-annual evaluations indicating long-term investment in juniors. “They’re more invested than I am!” one associate joked. Incoming juniors can expect “a slew of onboarding and training for anything and everything you could be doing as an attorney.”
“Sterne is not a ‘push them out’ firm.”
For those who decide to explore other options, sources were pleased to report that “there are many people who frequently go in-house to clients where we have developed a deep relationship - it’s always on good terms.” Our interviewees also made clear that “Sterne is not a ‘push them out’ kind of firm. A lot of senior associates do end up becoming directors (what we call partners) so there are lots of people who have been around for a while.” Our survey results confirm their comments where the firm scored considerably higher than the market for the metrics: ‘You intend to make partner’ and ‘making partner is achievable.’ However, for those who want to stay at the firm but without the pressures of becoming a director, don’t fret: “There are a lot of people in counsel positions as well.”
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Sterne’s commitment to DE&I is reflected in the fact that it ranks among the top 10% of firms surveyed for its representation of ethnic minority partners. Associates’ responses to our survey indicated that there are a diverse range of directors juniors can get mentorship from too. “We have an excellent executive committee who is invested in the progression, retention, and recruitment of diverse associates,” shared one source. The firm is also participating in the Mansfield rule certification programs.
In addition, sources highlighted that “at an interpersonal level, the firm does well at cultivating a sense of belonging – something a lot of firms miss.” Still, despite the strength of the firm’s affinity groups and the presence of a “high number of senior female associates,” sources did highlight the struggles “of retaining associates in this really hot lateral market.”
Informality serves as the cultural adhesive at Sterne where “everyone is on a first-name basis at every level.” One source told us: “Most of us bonded at a personal level from when we were summers.” That said, at the time of writing, many were sad to point out that socials had become “much less frequent” given the current prominence of work from home. “They used to do lots of happy hours” one insider reminisced, adding that “we’d have family nights, Christmas parties, crab feasts, and karaoke evenings with the directors…”
“People have wide-ranging interests and there doesn't seem to be a homogenous culture."
That said,opinions on Sterne’s hybrid approach were universally positive: “Compared to other firms, Sterne is extremely accommodating. There’s no rule about going into the office and they’ve recently discussed redoing the space to adapt to how people want to work, which includes having more collaboration areas.” For one interviewee, “the reason I’m going into the office is to socialize and build relationships,” adding that “I’ve been surprised at how genuinely open everyone is - people try to get to know you beyond the surface level.” And with lots of different degrees and backgrounds, it should come as no surprise that “people have wide-ranging interestsandthere doesn't seem to be a homogenous culture. You can tell folks are comfortable with being themselves and each other.”
Hours & Compensation
Billable hours: flexible target (attorneys choose a target between 1,400 and 2,000 in 100-hour increments).
Rather than setting one billing target for all associates, Sterne lets attorneys determine their own hours goal each year, ranging from 1,400 to 2,000 hours at 100-hour increments. However, we were told that “the firm recommends a 1,900 goal for your first year.” Compensation naturally varies with the hours associates choose. Some felt that the process lacked transparency, but those working 2,000 hours found that“we are at market which is nice – we’re pretty competitive there.”
Although our insiders generally agreed that setting meaningful boundaries was possible, sources didn’t shy away from the fact that there were plenty of demanding periods too. For example, one source told us: “Recently, I have been working 60 to 68-hour weeks, including most evenings and weekends.” Another told us: “Although you do receive a lot more emails in the evening, people don’t really expect you to respond.” The same went for attitudes toward weekends and vacations: “If you want to go on vacation for a week – as long as you hit your hours, you’re good.”
The consensus on pro bono was that while opportunities certainly existed, “it’s something you have to reach out for. Most of the people who do it are billing at the top end.” One source shared: “I do sometimes see emails about pro bono projects but it’s infrequent and I don’t see how I’d be able to manage the workload – my sense is that it’s not really encouraged.” However, the firm does incentivize participation by allowing associates to count 100 hours of pro bono toward their billable target and our sources reported on opportunities to go beyond that for larger projects. The firm also added it is striving to reach the goal of 50% of attorneys doing at least 40 hours of pro bono a year. Some of the firm’s partnerships include with the Legal Aid Justice Center and Union for Ethical BioTrade. Associates we spoke to had also represented clients at the immigration court.
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys across all US offices: 860
- Average per US attorney: 6
Strategy & Future
“With finances this firm is very transparent,” sources reflected.Twice a year Sterne puts on presentations disclosing its finances, and it has "highlighted its interest in growing the electronics practice," sources mentioned. Other areas of growth included biotech, chemical, mechanical, and design work. The firm also has a business development group looking into trending areas in patent law: “It was Japan 20 years ago, now it’s Germany - India is growing quickly too.”
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: 37
Interviewees outside OCI: 110
Sterne Kessler meets most of its future summer associates at the annual Loyola Patent Law Interview Program (PLI) in Chicago – about 75% in fact. The remaining 25% come through a mixture of on-campus interviews and resume collections. OCIs are conducted by directors (partners) and senior associates, and this year took place at Berkeley, Brigham Young University, The George Washington University, Georgetown, Harvard, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of New Hampshire, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, and William & Mary. The firm also attended the Southeastern Minority Job Fair, Lavender Law (LGBT Bar Job Fair), National Law School Consortium, and the Law Consortium. Those who get invited to an OCI will then face a round of questions based on their CV and cover letter. They will also be asked about their interest in IP specifically. Writing is very important to those reviewing any applications: “We look for clear, concise writing that displays the candidate’s level of understanding of the subject matter he or she is writing about.”
Top tips for this stage:
“We’re looking for individuals with a real commitment to both science and the law.”– Hiring sources at the firm
Applicants invited to second stage interview: 70
At the next stage, students have one-to-one interviews with a few directors and associates within the practice group the candidate is interested in – biotech, electrical, mechanical or trial and appellate. According to one source, interviews last “somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes, which was really good because it gave me a good sense of who was working in the group and I was able to touch on different questions I had.” Prior to the pandemic, candidates were also taken out to lunch, typically by one or two associates who can share their perspective on what it is like working at Sterne Kessler.
Questions here further drill down into a candidate’s background, their analytical ability, and how their qualifications match the role they are going for. One junior we spoke to had done this by already taking the Patent Bar, which is a separate license that patent attorneys are required to obtain – officially it’s called the United States Patent and Trademark Office registration examination. This associate remembered that their interviewer was impressed: “Having already done the Patent Bar adds value to your resume or interview. It shows everything is moving on the right track.”
Top tips for this stage:
"We appreciate it when candidates follow up on items from their initial interview and have done their research. It also goes a long way when a candidate takes the time to understand our practice and the specific practices of the attorneys conducting the interviews." – Hiring sources at the firm
The firm tells us that summer associates at Sterne Kessler are given assignments that they would receive as first-year associates – alongside plenty of social events and outings in the DC area. Summers also get feedback from people they work with throughout the program. A final evaluation is given before the summer associates' last day on the program, and they’re given the opportunity to ask questions in response to that and to provide the firm with their own feedback.
According to hiring sources at the firm, the decision on which practice group summer associates are invited to join “is most often based on the contributions they have made during the summer and the individual’s technological background,” and on occasion candidates may be considered for more than one group.
Top tips for this stage:
“Be engaged and involved during the entire summer program, especially with attorneys and staff across all practice groups. Immerse yourself in the opportunities presented to you.” – Hiring sources at the firm.
Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox P.L.L.C.
1100 New York Avenue NW,
- Head Office: Washington, D.C.
- Number of domestic offices: 1
- Partners (US): 66
- Associates (US): 58
- Counsel (US): 20
- Main recruitment contact: Cassandra Kowal (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Hiring partner: Deirdre Wells
- Diversity officer: Gaby Longsworth, Chair, Diversity Committee
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2022: 8
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2022:
- 1Ls: 2, 2Ls: 8
- Summer salary 2022:
- 1Ls: $3,942/week
- 2Ls: $3,942/week
- Split summers offered? Case by case
Main areas of work
American University College of Law, Berkeley Law, Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School, Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School, George Washington University School of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Howard University School of Law, Harvard Law School, Stanford Law School, University of Maryland School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, University of New Hampshire School of Law, University of Virginia School of Law.
Recruitment outside OCIs:
Loyola University Chicago, School of Law (Patent Law Interview Program), Southeastern Minority Job Fair (SEMJF), Lavender Law.
Summer associate profile:
Our firm seeks students in science and/or engineering. Advanced degrees are required for our biotechnology/chemical group. We strongly prefer advanced degrees for our mechanical and electronics groups. 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:
Our summer associate program begins with a full week of orientation training comprised of IP focused informational sessions, as well as introductions to our firm departments and practice groups. Additionally, the professional development department conducts firm-wide training throughout the summer including topics such as legal writing, presentation skills, ethics, time management, and more. Our summer associates also have the opportunity to attend practice group lunches where substantive topics are presented and discussed. Each summer associate is also assigned an advisor and 'buddy'. An advisor is typically a senior level associate responsible for regulating workload and providing guidance throughout the program. A buddy is a junior associate, usually a former summer associate, who helps acclimate you to the firm and answer any questions you may have. 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.
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2022
District of Columbia
- Intellectual Property: Patent Prosecution (Band 1)
Visit Sterne Kessler's careers page for more information.