Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox PLLC - The Inside View

If you’ve got a passion for patents, or years of technological experience under your belt, this one-office wonder will welcome you to IP’s big leagues.

Despite such a small headcount – by BigLaw standards, at least – Sterne Kessler’s a true IP hotshot. “The firm punches well above its weight,” one associate interviewee raved, and that’s a reputation backed up by our colleagues at Chambers USA. In fact, Sterne Kessler is the only firm in DC to pick up a top-tier ranking in patent prosecution, and has for four years in a row! According to managing director Michael Ray, the magical formula behind this is the firm’s 50-50 split between traditional patent and trademark work (such as prosecution, counseling and analysis) and litigation. “That adds a nice variety and it means our practices support one another. Litigators help other lawyers understand the full life cycle of IP matters, and those litigators can also pull in experienced patent prosecutors to help them analyze patents and complex technology,” he explains. “We’ve got so many tools and so much experience that allows us to take a holistic approach to IP problems.” 

“We’re a bunch of nerds.” 

As there’s so much a crossover between patent law and technology, it follows that most of the firm’s lawyers have at least a bachelor’s or even a PhD in the sciences or engineering. “We’re a bunch of nerds,” quipped one source, while another clarified: “Sterne Kessler often hires people with industry or patent examination experience, and I liked the idea of being around people who didn’t all come straight here from law school.” Add to that the expertise that comes from being in the vicinity of the Patent & Trademark Office, International Trade Commission and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and you’ve got a recipe for success. 

Strategy & Future 



“…an actual barista and a fully stacked bar with kombucha.” 

According to Ray, the firm has been adjusting to life post-COVID, moving out of its previous office space which “no longer fit how we work today and how we want to work in the future.” With many attorneys still working remotely, Ray explains that Sterne Kessler has made the switch to hoteling, so “no one has an assigned office, including me! However, those who commit to working from the office three days a week will soon be assigned an office.” That certainly seems attractive, considering the new office has a rooftop penthouse, cozy outdoor spaces and a fully equipped barista bar, “with an actual barista and a fully stacked bar with kombucha and other random drinks,” added one associate. 

According to Ray, the declining value of patents in the US specifically has made it more important to take a global approach to IP problems: “We have attorneys here who focus on that strategy, as well as a network of colleagues we rely on across the world, so we can provide global expertise,” he explains. “The European market is very important to us, and we have longstanding relationships with companies there.” AI will undoubtedly affect Sterne Kessler’s practice in the future, and Ray tells us that the firm is already answering client questions and seeing more AI-related technologies, particularly within life sciences: “Although we’re absolutely looking at AI’s uses, limitations and tools to more efficiently serve our clients, it’s not directly affecting us quite yet.” 

Read more from Michael Ray under the 'Get Hired' tab.

The Work 



The associates on our list found themselves in between four groups: the trial and appellate group, which primarily works on patent litigation; specialist electronic; biotechnology & chemical; and mechanical & design groups. Each of these practices largely focus on patent prosecution and patent-related matters within their respective industries. Associates explained that, although work is largely free market, they still report their workload to a coordinator who lets the directors (i.e. partners) know who is available: “They check in weekly, so you can let them know how busy you are on a scale of one to five.” Given the technological focus of the work, matters are often assigned to those with the relevant background or experience. However, while some may have preferred a more centralized system, others appreciated how it “pushes you to work with everyone, get an idea of their clients and technologies, and narrow down where you want to go with your career.” 

“I’ve worked with obscure kinds of technology that were completely new to me but had a cult following, so I often end up scrolling through those subreddits!” 

The trial & appellate group – affectionately labeled ‘TAG’ by its associates – focuses on all things litigation within patent and trademark law, alongside a smaller amount of trade secret work. Sources mentioned working with plenty of long-term clients across industries, such as medical devices and pharmaceuticals, electrical systems and food processing. “We litigate across various forums,” one junior boasted. “That includes the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), International Trade Commission, federal district courts and appeals at the Federal Circuit.” Interviewees had worked with national and international clients, attending court cases across the country. Some juniors had even been encouraged to take or assist on depositions, noting: “If you’re capable of performing a fifth-year task as, say, a third-year, there’s no reason why they won’t assign that to you.” That said, typical tasks for newbies include doc review, trial prep, “a bunch of bonkers research assignments,” and a range of drafting, such as jury instructions and exhibition charts. One source especially enjoyed “getting new cases and learning about the new technology. I’ve worked with obscure kinds of technology that were completely new to me but had a cult following, so I often end up scrolling through those subreddits!” 

Litigation clients: Volkswagen, Bristol Myers Squibb, Regents of the University of California. Secured a victory for Teva Pharmaceuticals in multiple patent infringement claims relating to its production of Hetlioz, which treats a circadian rhythm disorder. 

True to its name, the electronics group deals with patents relating to electronics, so is home to plenty of attorneys with electrical engineering experience. Despite the industry and IP focus, we heard the work is broad: “We handle everything from prosecutions and defending patents to writing applications and analyzing infringements. Everything you can do with a patent, the electronics group does it.” Inter partes reviews (trial proceedings in front of the PTAB to challenge a patent’s validity) are another key part of the job. Perhaps naturally, then, associates in this group have to be able to write patents, and they get plenty of practice and training at Sterne Kessler. That said, an interviewee appreciated how “they allow me to do things in my own style as long as the substance is correct, so I can put all of my different skills to work.” Other sources also enjoyed putting their technical skills to work, talking to inventors and directors to draft an application, which can be “really rewarding. I love having those conversations and asking if they’ve proposed alternative methodologies to accomplish their goals.” 

“Our clients are so impressive, and I get really excited about their new inventions…” 

The mechanical & design group deals with both utility and design patents, as well as “any technology that’s not biotech, or based on electronics or software.” There is also a trademark subgroup within the team which focuses on the branding aspects of intellectual property. On the mechanical side, technology can range from everyday devices and items to larger scale industrial and engineering projects. “Our clients are so impressive, and I get really excited about their new inventions,” an associate raved. Tasks for juniors again included research and drafting applications, with the understanding that “each client may want a different style, so you have to learn what they are and how to write in those ways. Patent law is all about getting reps!” Juniors explained they often take part in strategy on matters, keeping an eye on clients’ competitors to see what they’re doing. 

Patent prosecution clients: Salesforce & Roku. Worked with PepsiCo on hundreds of domestic and international patents, some of which relate to its packaging and vending machines.  

Pro Bono 



The firm hosts a pro bono day every summer, offering training and bringing in local business owners to connect associates with potential clients. We heard these are often trademark queries, but sources had also taken on patent matters that align with the tech they work with day-to-day. Previous examples have included patent prosecution or application drafting for solo inventors. Outside of this, we heard associates have to volunteer and seek out pro bono, but where they do, there are non-IP opportunities on offer covering work related to veterans and immigration. Hours on litigation matters can often add up, but associates can bill up to 100 hours towards pro bono and noted that “people still do pro bono, even if they’re busy.” 

Pro bono hours 

  • For all US offices:1,960
  • Average per US attorney:30

Hours & Compensation 



Billable target: flexible target (attorneys choose a target between 1,400 and 2,000 in 100-hour increments) 

Essentially, attorneys pick their target at the start of the billing year, and their salary is calculated pro-rata in accordance. So, those who choose a 2,000-hour target receive market-rate compensation, and this salary reduces as the hours decrease. However, the firm makes up the difference for those who pick a lower target and end up billing more. TAG associates revealed that the flexible target doesn’t necessarily apply to their group as newbies start on 2,000 and can typically reduce their hours after two years (unless the firm suggests lower targets at an earlier stage). “It’s less common in the group to go down to 1,900,” a junior explained, “you have cases that just get so busy.” Despite this, interviewees in the group felt well looked after by directors, who reportedly kept a close eye on associates to help them avoid burnout. 

Those who had been able to adjust their hours – or knew of colleagues who had – appreciated the work-life balance: “The firm understands that the workforce is changing now. The balance hours program is really popular, and the only difference is that it slows down your time to directorship.” Specifically, to keep everyone on even footing, associates would need to make up the equivalent of seven years on 1,900 to be eligible for directorship. That said, it doesn’t affect bonus eligibility, as those who meet their target typically receive a bonus. It’s worth noting that these aren’t purely based on numbers, but are calculated following biannual performance evaluations.  

Career Development 



“Directors will play clips from Federal Circuit arguments and invite us to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the oral advocacy…” 

Associate sources praised their professional development (PD) advisors for their support, and almost all of those we spoke to had positive experiences to share: “Mine is very involved in trying to find opportunities for me to advance, and has encouraged me to pursue my dreams even if those are outside of the firm,” said one, while another recalled “conversations about how things are going now, as well as more long-range thinking, such as introducing me to new types of work and people as I move towards directorship.” Associates also valued the informal relationships they’d built with directors and appreciated their efforts in improving the training on offer. One TAG associate mentioned how “they’re really thinking about how to make things accessible. Directors will play clips from Federal Circuit arguments and invite us to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the oral advocacy, which is something you don’t necessarily need the context for.” This training accompanies learning sessions hosted by the firm, as well as access to external training and resources. 

Culture 



Despite just having one office in DC, many of Sterne Kessler’s lawyers live in other states and work remotely. While many were grateful for this setup, associates noted that “the firm is really working on ways to maintain the culture without mandating in-office attendance.” But we will add that those who do go in get a free lunch! Yet there are plenty of opportunities to meet everyone in the office, as holiday parties and crab feasts often pop up on the calendar as an opportunity to “see lawyers not being lawyers sometimes.” The litigation group also hosts a TAG week each month, encouraging its attorneys to work from the office as much as possible: “People understand that the in-person training experience can’t be replaced… but those weeks are usually way less productive because of all the socializing!” Interviewees were pleased with the “kind, understanding, team-centric” culture, seeing the value of being at a smaller firm and getting to know colleagues at all levels: “You can sit down with the most senior directors of the firm and they’ll talk to you like a human being. There’s no sense that you’re ever too junior to speak to someone.” 

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion 



STEM and the law? That’s not historically been the easiest combination when it comes to DEI, but we heard that Sterne Kessler’s still making decent progress. “Diversity is spoken about here and it is a focus,” said one source. “Directors call out others who may speak without thinking properly, and it’s important for associates to see respected people take action.” Although we heard that representation could improve at the more senior levels, interviewees felt that the firm has been improving, especially when it came to the representation of women. Some did highlight their disappointment that they weren’t able to credit DEI hours towards their billable target, and wanted to see more opportunities for junior members of the firm to get involved in wider diversity frameworks. Still, many felt that DEI was a firm priority, citing Sterne Kessler’s recent Mansfield Certification as evidence of this. 

Get Hired  



The first stage: recruitment on and off campus   

OCI applicants interviewed: 53

Interviewees outside OCI: 88

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 typically held virtually, according to each school’s recommendations or offerings. OCIs are conducted by directors (partners) and senior associates, and this year took place at Brigham Young University, Emory University, The George Washington University, Georgetown, Harvard, University of Michigan, University of New Hampshire, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and the University of Virginia, among others. The firm also attended the Southeastern Minority Job Fair, the Midwest-California-Georgia Consortium, and the National Law School Consortium. Those who get invited to an OCI should be prepared for 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   

Callbacks   

Applicants invited to second-stage interview: 56

At the next stage, students have one-to-one or group interviews with a few directors and associates within the practice group the candidate is interested in – biotech and chemical, electrical, mechanical and design, or trial and appellate. As of summer 2022, the firm offers in-person callback interviews in their Washington, DC office (travel and accommodation covered by the firm). Candidates who come for in-person interviews are treated to lunch with a junior associate from the same group for which they are interviewing as part of their interview day.  

Questions in the in-person interviews 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 passed 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   

Summer program   

Offers: 28

Acceptances: 14

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.

Interview with Michael B. Ray, managing director



Commercial strategy, market position and trends

Chambers Associate: How would you define your firm’s current position and identity in the legal market? What differentiates your firm from your peer firms in the market?

Michael B. Ray: I think we’re a very forward-looking firm. We embrace change and technologies and constantly look to the future, starting with what our clients need and how our attorneys can do that. For instance, we had a beautiful office space, which was only 10 years old, but no longer fit how we work today and how we expect to work in the future. We signed a new lease in a different building which is designed to cater to how people work today. We wanted our space to be exciting and fun, so that people want to be in the office. Since the pandemic, many attorneys still want to work from home all or most of the time. Many law firms have gone to mandating office attendance, but I generally understand that’s not working well. We haven’t done that; we provide our attorneys with a flexible environment, allowing them to decide what works best for them.

Our space is positive and with such good energy that most people want to be in the office multiple days a week. We’ve designed it with the best technology for virtual and hybrid meetings. Lunch is provided every day, and we have a barista bar in the penthouse! We’ve had that for over ten years, but our barista now has new equipment and a great new penthouse location. We also provide kombucha, cold brew and many other drinks to provide an environment where people are comfortable working. The penthouse is partially glassed in and can be opened to make an indoor-outdoor space on a nice day. It’s still under construction, but we’ll have some chairs and couches, umbrellas for shade and custom planters designed by a very creative landscape architect. It will be full of grass, trees and flowers, with outdoor Wi-Fi so attorneys can work outside.

We’re doing 100% hotelling, which means no one has an assigned office, including me! However, those who commit to working from the office three days a week will soon be assigned an office. Attorneys can still choose to come into the office less than three days per week but they will continue to hotel and not get an assigned office. It’s an experiment we’re trying, and our attorneys are being very patient, but I think they’re enjoying it. I’ve always said we’re a special firm because of our culture. People who visit us can see that we have an open, friendly, caring culture. People like working with each other and feel very comfortable and supported here. Along with our great office space, our fantastic clients and state-of-the-art legal work help us compete with other firms for the best legal talent.

CA: Have there been any developments at the firm over the past year that you’d like law students to know about?

Ray: We were founded in October 1978, and we’re proud to have completed 45 years. We’ve had nice, steady organic growth alongside some talented lateral lawyers who have joined us. Even though we continue to grow, we’ve stayed true to our mission of being the IP experts. Most lawyers have at least a bachelor's in engineering or sciences, and many have PhDs and post-docs. Some attorneys in our trial & appellate and trademark groups don’t have a technical background, but they want to be involved in IP because they’re interested in technology.

We have a 50-50 split between traditional patent and trademark work and litigation. On the patent side, our lawyers counsel clients, preparing, prosecuting and analyzing patents. We do inter partes work on the litigation side, with disputes across courts and with the International Trade Commission and Patent Trial and Appeal Board. That adds a nice variety to our work and means our practices support one another. Litigators help other lawyers understand the full life cycle of IP matters, and those litigators can also pull in experienced patent prosecutors to help them analyze patents and complex technology. If a client comes to our trial and appellate group to enforce a patent, our patent prosecutors can often correct weaknesses and get a stronger patent for enforcement. We’ve got so many tools and so much experience that allow us to take a holistic approach to IP problems. It’s exciting for prosecutors as they can be exposed to and get involved in parts of litigation, while litigators have access to patent and trademark experts they can bring onto cases.

CA: Are there any domestic or international events/trends that are affecting any of the firm’s practices at the moment? Are there any trends that you think are affecting the business of law firms more generally, and how is that playing out with your firm?

Ray: The value of many patents has gone down in the US over the last decade because of the current state of the law here. That has made it more important for companies to think globally and not just domestically. We’ve seen an increase in taking a global approach to solving IP problems, considering for example how a patent strategy may include a lawsuit in Germany as well as the US. It continues to be an important point of consideration when counselling clients. We have attorneys here who focus on that strategy as well as a network of colleagues we rely on across the world so we can provide global expertise.

CA: What is your firm’s commercial strategy focusing on, and how do you expect the next year to unfold?

Ray: We plan to continue to maintain our balance between inter partes and ex parte work as the firm grows. That means that, when litigation might be slow, our prosecution practices are the ones developing revenue. However, when prosecution might be feeling price pressures, our litigation group might be generating more revenue. We have three main industry groups: our biotech group for biological, chemical and pharmaceutical inventions; our mechanical, design and trademarks group for mechanical, medical devices, and consumer products; and our electronics group where electronics, computer, and software work is done. We have also traditionally had focus on US companies because we wanted direct relationships, but we’ve diversified beyond the US and have a very nice global client base. The European market is very important to us, and we have longstanding relationships with companies there. Even though we’re a specialty firm, we’re diversified by the types of IP we do and the industries we serve, while also diversifying geographically. That’s the business strategy we’ve pursued for many years and it’s going well. Although we have clients around the country and the world, we have found having a single office in DC helps us maintain our culture, identity and the quality of our work. It does not mean that we won’t have offices in other cities at some point, but it has so far allowed us to maintain our brand over the years.

Inside the Firm

CA: How is the rise in AI affecting the firm’s work?

Ray: Right now, what we’re seeing is a lot of questions from our clients. Surprisingly, a lot of life sciences clients are asking about the legal implications of the usage of AI. Although we’re absolutely looking at AI’s uses, limitations and tools to more efficiently serve our clients, it’s not directly affecting us quite yet. We’re all still learning it, and the AI tools may need a fair amount of work, but I expect we will be using it and that it will make us more efficient. We are seeing more AI-related technologies already, such as how to use AI as part of drug discovery, for example. Some larger clients have already adopted or developed AI systems, so we’re learning about them while understanding the limitations.

CA: What’s the firm’s approach to bolstering diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Ray: We are committed to diversity and inclusion and have focused on that for many years. We have a committee here at the firm and have hired a manager to run our efforts. The committee advises the firm on DEI issues and regularly brings in outside experts to advise us and to educate our people. It’s been working really well for us. I don't know where we stand right now statistically compared to peer firms, but we do have a very diverse and healthy culture. Our leadership overall is very diverse: our executive committee is made up of a woman and two men.

The Fun Bit

CA: Is there any advice you’d give to your younger self starting out your career?

Ray: We just hosted a law school class over the weekend where we invited 26 3Ls to the firm. We were teaching a substantive law class, but students really wanted to talk about what’s it like working at a law firm, and what’s it like to bill hours. Most of them asked for some general advice on succeeding in a law firm as a new associate.  My first piece of advice is that, even though we work flexibly, it’s important to be in the office, getting facetime with experienced lawyers. A lot of learning happens that way, which can’t be replicated over Webex or Teams. Many conversations happen before a meeting starts or after it ends, so it’s important to spend time with senior lawyers, looking, listening and learning. Secondly, I would advise people to work with as many people as they can within their firm. Look for a mentor and try to find one early on who will take an interest in you and guide your career.

Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox PLLC

1101 K Street NW,
10th Floor,
Washington, DC,
20005
Website sternekessler.com

Main areas of work



 We are Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, an intellectual property specialty firm. Our firm is organized into four primary areas: biotechnology and chemical; electronics; mechanical and design (which includes trademark and brand protection); and trial and appellate. We provide full-service IP support for clients in every sector of the economy, both domestic and international.

Firm profile



Sterne Kessler was founded in 1978, and we are proud to be a leading IP firm in Washington, DC, with decades of experience helping companies strategize and build global IP portfolios. We have over 170 professionals, most of whom hold an advanced technical degree, including over 50 with masters degrees and more than 50 with a doctorate degree in science and engineering. We deliver integrated IP services, including top-tier patent prosecution, PTAB and TTAB litigation, design patents, utility patents, trademark, advertising and anti-counterfeiting, ITC investigations, and district court and appellate litigation. Our attorneys and staff consistently vote our firm as a ‘great place to work.’

Recruitment



Law schools attending for OCIs in 2024:
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 with education in STEM fields. Advanced degrees are required for our biotechnology/chemical group and we have a strong preference for advanced degrees for our electronics group. Candidates interested in our electronics, mechanical and design, and biotechnology and chemical groups must be patent bar-eligible. Patent-bar eligibility preferred but not required for our trial and appellate group. USPTO 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.

Social media



Recruitment website: www.sternekessler.com/careers
Twitter: @sternekessler
Linkedin: sternekessler

This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2023

Ranked Departments

    • Intellectual Property: Patent Prosecution (Band 1)