Master’s degrees, PhDs, and connections overseas are in abundance at this IP “giant in DC.”
You may have heard of the New York Giants and the San Francisco Giants, but if we’re talking BigLaw IP leagues, it’s this “giant in DC” we’re concerned about. Though relatively small (and young) by BigLaw standards, Sterne Kessler’s success is not capped by its size. With just over 150 attorneys, the firm sits “at the forefront of patent law” in DC. That’s right: according to Chambers USA, it’s the only firm to pick up a top-tier patent prosecution ranking in the district.
“…at the forefront of patent law.”
Though it’s only been around for 45 years, the firm’s expertise is anything but green. “We have a lot of people with master’s degrees and PhDs,” a source pointed out. If we’re talking PhDs, the firm lists that number at just over 60. This is therefore a firm for the technically minded: “If you’re interested in engineering, science, and tech, this is the firm for you,” an insider emphasized. With incoming associate cohorts of just five to six newbies per year, there’s plenty of room to “find your own path.” Throw in the wealth of IP expertise at the firm, and associates made it clear that “whatever specialization you want, Sterne Kessler has it.”
Strategy & Future
“We have a strong reputation both in prosecution and inter partes work,” managing director Mike Ray tells us of the firm’s market position. He breaks this down further, adding: “We strive for a 50/50 mix of inter partes and ex parte work that includes everything from district court and ITC litigation to preparation and prosecution of patent and trademark applications. We are able to take some of the lessons learned in prosecution and apply them to litigation and vice versa.” Ray explains the firm’s work is diverse not only in the way practices supplement one another but also in the industries the firm serves: “When one industry is down, another may be booming!”
"Our new office space is being designed for how our younger lawyers are working today."
In an economy where clients are demanding higher value, Ray tells us Sterne is doubling down on its investment in optimizing its processes and procedures: “We continue to increase efficiency by pushing down or outsourcing routine work to free up our experienced lawyers. We’ve also made investments in software development and have, for example, developed our own project management system.” Similarly, as more clients look for teams with global expertise, Ray explains that “we’ve strengthened the relationships we have with other law firms around the world so that our solutions are not just based in the US.” And finally, on home soil, associates can look forward to a brand-new office space! Ray elaborates: “We’ve been in our current building for 29 years; our new office space is being designed for how our younger lawyers are working today and how we expect them to be working in the future.” The firm’s new digs reportedly include a penthouse space in downtown DC that features outdoor areas, an abundance of natural light, and a rooftop barista. Can we get a tour? Asking for a friend…
It comes as no surprise to discover that the firm’s main focuses are patent prosecution, IP litigation, patent office litigation, and trademark & brand protection. Sterne’s clientele is made up of entities across the electronics & technology, biotech, pharmaceuticals, chemical & industrial, consumer goods & services, and healthcare industries – so basically everything but the kitchen sink. The firm’s IP practice is split into biotechnology and chemical practice groups.
Work allocation at the firm is both free market and overseen by workflow directors. “Every associate has the option to go to directors and say that they want to work on a project, and the directors check if the associates are a good fit,” an insider explained. Practice group leaders also send round surveys to regulate the workload, checking who needs more work and who needs help. “They do a good job at accounting for different people’s needs,” an associate concluded of the work allocation model. “I like approaching directors, but not everyone is that way.” A case in point: reflecting on the set-up, an associate remarked that free market systems “don’t work well for people who don’t know how to network.” As a newbie, “you sometimes have to do non-billable work in order to build your network, get trained, and have directors trust you” before repeat customers come knocking.
“You can go from working on a water filter project to an at-home weight loss deal.”
The trial & appellategroup houses nearly half of the firm’s second- and third-year associates and covers a “very broad” mix of federal circuit litigation involving inter partes reviews (IPRs), covered business method patents (CBMs) and post-grant reviews (PGRs). “We work with large Fortune 500 companies across Germany, Italy and India,” an insider explained of Sterne’s global client base. “It’s rare to work with startups unless a partner sees a lot of potential in them,” they noted. And while the clients are far-ranging, so are the matters: “You can go from working on a water filter project to an at-home weight loss deal.” Juniors’ involvement varies depending on the size of the matter and how many associates are staffed on it, though the firm’s small cohorts ensure teams are never oversaturated. “Sterne teams are usually made up of a junior associate, a senior associate, and a partner,” and juniors are usually responsible for document review, deposition preparation, and drafting interrogatory responses, letters and motions.
Litigation clients: Volkswagen, Regents of the University of California, Roku. Secured a victory for Teva Pharmaceuticals in a case regarding their production of a more affordable version of Naloxone, a nasal spray used to treat opioid overdose.
The rest of the subgroups work on patent prosecution for different industries. “We do everything from preparing the patent application, to prosecuting it at the patent office and any subsequent litigation,” an associate explained of the group’s breadth. With this scope, juniors can begin to carve out their focus areas once they’ve gained a little experience: “You can do traditional patent prosecution, you can get more involved in litigation activities, or you can work in challenging the validity of patents,” though, to start, “they have you focus on patent prosecution,” an insider told us. “From day one, I was claim charting and researching, and I’m on client calls,” a second year detailed. Other junior responsibilities include (a lot of) drafting of applications and writing responses to examiners.
Patent prosecution clients: Bristol Myers Squibb, Wirtgen, BTL Industries. Represents Apple with regard to its technology and design patents portfolio.
“I have partners come up to me saying I should take depositions, and I’ve only just started my third year!”
Our associate sources all echoed their praise for Sterne’s structured career development process, highlighting both the formal and informal training and support. “We’re all assigned buddies and professional development advisers who meet with us on a weekly basis,” a newbie told us. Buddies serve as a colleague who associates can fire “the stupid questions” at. Along with advisers, buddies also check in on newbies’ adjustment to the firm and ask about any policies they may be having trouble with. “I know one partner who wanted his midlevel to gain writing experience; even if you aren’t thinking about it, they’re thinking about it for you,” one interviewee remarked, adding: “I have partners come up to me saying I should take depositions, and I’ve only just started my third year!” With this kind of reassurance, it’s unsurprising that our survey data shows 80% of Sterne’s associates intend to make partner at the firm in a market where only 34% are aiming for it, according to our findings.
Hours & Compensation
Billable hours: flexible target (attorneys choose a target between 1,400 and 2,000 in 100-hour increments)
Sterne has a flexible billing target that allows associates to take charge of their annual hours goals. Targets can be set at 100-hour increments ranging from 1,400 to 2,000 hours, though sources told us most people aim for 1,900 or 2,000. “If you want to adjust your target, you can speak to the firm,” an insider explained. “Most people set a lower goal and if you exceed it, they match it in compensation.” Salaries are set based on hours and associates who go beyond their target may be rewarded with a bonus. However, bonuses are not strictly tied to meeting hours; directors assess associates’ non-billable hours and total value to the firm. According to our survey data, this was a slight point of contention as over half of the respondents did not feel that bonus allocation was fair and transparent. The firm explained that it prefers to assess all aspects of a lawyers' role, including mentorship, rather than hours alone.
Plenty of our interviewees voiced their appreciation of the firm’s flexible hours arrangement, but there was an understanding that “in reality, some cases prevent that flexibility from happening. I once billed over 2,000 hours, and that was after I had turned down projects,” an insider informed us. According to our survey results, Sterne’s associates reported working 49.6 hours per week on average, which was only slightly higher than the market average of 49 hours. However, when the going gets tough, the system is there to support you: “Over the summer, I had a project that took too much time, and I had other projects coming up. I held my hand up and was able to offload work to other associates.”
Our interviewees concluded that “pro bono is encouraged but making time for it can be difficult.” With that in mind, the firm incentivizes participation in matters by allowing associates to count up to 100 pro bono hours towards their billable credit. Opportunities in this realm include participating in IP clinics, though associates also have the chance to branch out into areas like immigration and veteran’s pro bono if they’ve had their fill of IP matters.
Pro bono hours
- For all US offices: 1,247
- Average per US attorney: 8
“The senior director comes by my office to tell me about clients he’s excited about! They’re the most approachable people you can think of.”
There are no stern faces here: “Though there is still a hierarchy, we have fun relationships where we can joke around with senior directors!” And don’t be startled if a senior partner pops into your office: “When I first started, every time our group practice leader was in the office, they would always stop by, say hi and take me to lunch. The senior director also comes by my office to tell me about clients he’s excited about! They’re the most approachable people you can think of.” On a more serious note, “even when cases are on deadlines, I’ve felt like directors were working with me and telling me what I need to change and improve,” an interviewee highlighted. According to our sources, this attitude fosters a culture conducive to learning: “Everyone’s constantly learning; no one’s expected to be an expert on everything.”
In terms of hybrid working, “it’s difficult trying to balance the desire to have people in the office and people working remotely,” an associate noted. Ray encourages associates to “get as much in-person face time working with senior lawyers as you can. There are so many things you can learn in person that can be lost in a virtual meeting!” Whilst attorneys are encouraged to spend time in the office, there is no formal requirement. If you do head in,get ready for the weekly trivia contests, lunch-and-learns, and Thanksgiving potlucks. There’s pretty much something for everyone: the nature lovers can join the hiking club, while the movie buffs can get stuck into the movie club.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
“There’s not a lot of diversity in engineering, which means IP law also doesn’t have much diversity,” an interviewee noted. However, the firm is making strides to tackle the issue. Sterne has a diversity committee that is in charge of DE&I efforts at the firm, which span recruiting initiatives to social events with presentations and guest speakers. Ray also highlights the firm’s recent progress in the space: “We’ve joined the Mansfield Rule; and while I think we do an excellent job with DE&I, Mansfield certification is requiring us to do some things we hadn’t done, like tracking things we’ve not previously tracked.” On the gender front, the firm hosts a women’s leadership group, and associates were quick to applaud the fact that incoming classes are often made up of 50% women. In line with the praise our sources had for the firm’s efforts to improve diversity, our survey data shows that 80% of respondents felt the firm was making an effort to retain and promote diverse associates.
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: 34
Interviewees outside OCI: 81
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 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 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
Applicants invited to second-stage interview: 64
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. 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.” 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 group of associates as part of their interview day.
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 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
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 PLLC
1100 New York Avenue NW,
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, 2023
District of Columbia
- Intellectual Property: Patent Prosecution (Band 1)
Visit Sterne Kessler's careers page for more information.