The uber brainy bunch at Sterne Kessler meld their technical know-how with their love of law.
If Sterne Kessler was a band, we might call it IP/DC. It’s an IP firm for starters, operating out of just one office in – you guessed it – Washington DC. And then there’s that rocking culture, with headliner acts like Story Time with Mike Ray, starring Sterne Kessler’s managing director. “He read stories to everyone’s kids once a week during lockdown!” one associate explained. “He’s a really nice guy.” Culture aside, a few of our sources were drawn to the firm because of its reputation in Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) litigation, but that’s just one example of what it does well. Sterne Kessler is the only law firm with a top Chambers USAranking in patent prosecution, outdoing some seriously major BigLaw players for the top spot. That’s no mean feat for a one-office operation of just over 150 lawyers.
“Using my technical skills to supplement my legal skills.”
Given the nature of the work on offer, Sterne Kessler attracted those with technical and engineering backgrounds. Juniors told us there are “multiple PhDs in different focus areas” among the associate ranks.Several sources agreed with this interviewee that Sterne Kessler was just the firm for “using my technical skills to supplement my legal skills.” The firm recruits several incomers from the Loyola Patent Law Interview Program, a two-day patent jobs fair in Chicago. “The Sterne Kessler people I met at the fair were really nice,” one fondly recalled. Associates said “people often talk about their families and hobbies, which is refreshing.”
Strategy & Future
"We’re often asked if we plan to open an office outside DC, but actually one single office can service the world," managing director Mike Ray says. "We considered opening additional offices but COVID-19 changed that." Speaking of the pandemic, Ray tells us Sterne Kessler was "very fortunate to have made decisions in the months leading up to the pandemic which put us in a very strong position: we were one of the first firms to send employees home in March and we were already well positioned for remote working." What plans does the firm have to grow as the pandemic moves further into the mirror? "One thing that’s fundamentally important to us is to stay true to the fact we’re a specialist IP firm, so we’ll always look for new niches within that umbrella but not outside of IP," Ray confirms. Check out the Bonus Features tab for more.
The 15 second and third-year associates on our list were spread pretty evenly between the biotechnology & chemical, electronics, mechanical & design and trial & appellate practice groups. All associates submit a weekly report ranking how busy they are from one to five; coordinators then dish out work to everybody with space to take it on.
There are two sides to patent law: litigation and prosecution. Newbies typically do more of the latter. “Patent prosecution helps new associates get the hang of the practical aspects of the patent process and terminology,” associates explained. “Plus prosecution work usually has a lower budget, so juniors with lower billing rates can spend more time on projects than senior attorneys.” Juniors broke down the patent prosecution process for us. After contacting the inventor of whichever product, associates will handle disclosure meetings then draft and submit the patent application. Simple. Unless the patent office rejects the application, at which point associates will analyze the rejection, develop arguments against it and potentially interview the office’s examiner, “because things sometimes get lost in written arguments.”
“I spent an hour talking to an inventor the other day and the director sat there pretty quietly.”
Interviewees were pleased with their level of responsibility. “It’s pretty independent,” said one. “I spent an hour talking to an inventor the other day and the director sat there pretty quietly.” Directors are partners at Sterne Kessler, by the way. Patent prosecution work extends beyond the US too. “Lots of the patents we handle are filed in China and Europe, so we’ll develop the US strategy then work with foreign associates to make sure it’s aligned across the globe,” an insider explained. “I like getting to see different views of the law!” We heard associates are likely to be working on multiple cases with longer deadlines. “You might not hear back from the Patent Office for months,” associates elaborated, “so you need to make sure your docket is filled with several cases with staggered deadlines, so your hours are what they should be.”
Litigation, on the other hand, was a bit more fast-paced, with bursts of intense work for depositions and trials, “so you can get lots of hours in all at once!” International Trade Commission (ITC) and Hatch-Waxman litigation are common fare in the trial and appellate group. Some associates focus entirely on Patent Trial and Appeal Board litigation, which involves everything from research to drafting major responses and coordinating expert guidance. Even first-years get to “jump on substantive parts of the proceedings,” one told us. “I’ve attended about 12 depositions and hearings.” Juniors also typically take charge of working with experts. Sources here were also pleased to get a level of independence “very early on. They review the work, but nobody stares over your shoulder.”
Recent clients: Volkswagen, Apple, adidas.Represented Teva Pharmaceuticals in a patent infringement claimconcerning its application to bring a generic version of Narcan (an opioid antidote) to the market.
Hours & Compensation
Rather than setting one billing target for all associates, Sterne Kessler lets attorneys determine their own hours goal each year, ranging from 1,400 to 2,000 hours at 100-hour increments. The firm recommends newbies shoot for 1,900, “but I know some directors who do less than that.” Pre-pandemic,those who worked after 7pm were treated to dinner on the firm, and the tongue-in-cheek reviews are in: “People shift their hours around just to stay for it!”
“I'm busy with work during most weekends.”
The pandemic hasn’t made it any less busy. “I sit at my computer for ten hours a day,” one estimated, while another told us “I'm busy with work during most weekends.” There’s an unlimited vacation policy, “but people don’t take more than a week off each year.” Our survey reflected exactly that: junior associates on average took seven days off in the last year.
Salary depends on associates’ hours goal, which they’re asked to choose in September. But because the firm’s billable year runs from November to October, associates can’t be sure how much they’ll earn until after their goal’s been set, which some found “unreasonable.” Most sources found their pay competitive, and an associate might get their dollars bumped up “if you bring in business, or if you’re just an absolute pro.”
During COVID-19, we heard from some that the firm “strongly encouraged” associates and of counsel to take a proportional pay cut alongside reduced hours, which wouldn’t be reimbursed. This ruffled some feathers, given that partners took a 10% pay cut which was paid back. At the outset of the pandemic, there was a slowdown in IP work which Sterne Kessler would have had to navigate, but nobody was laid off.
The other good news was that anyone who exceeded their reduced hours received a bonus commensurate with their original salary. One associate was also relieved when “they forgave the deficit in hours from my original target – it was really cool of them.” The firm implemented a new bonus system in 2018. Associates previously had to bill 1,950 hours to get a bonus (even if their personal hours goal was less than that) and could apply for a smaller, subjective bonus which considered achievements like good client management. These days, both objective (hours billed, client origination, work quality) and subjective (mentoring, training, general firm citizenship) elements are tied to bonuses and there’s no minimum hours goal, so it’s all to play for.
The DC Bar recommends all attorneys do 50 hours of pro bono a year, “which the firm encourages us to do!” To incentivize its attorneys, Sterne Kessler allows associates to put up to 100 pro bono hours toward their hours goal. Given its IP focus, Sterne Kessler does a fair amount of pro bono for inventors. “A bunch of us did a one-day clinic where we advised on trademark issues, reviewed inventions and laid out strategies for inventors,” one told us. “It was really fun.” Immigration and asylum matters were also common: “We help reunite families who have been held in camps at the southern border.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 1,175
- Average per attorney: 8
Associates reckoned Sterne Kessler “doesn’t have a typical law firm feel,” owing to the fact that “loads of us have science backgrounds and people join at different points in their career.” As a result, “there’s a lot of appreciation for the variety of backgrounds people bring, which affects how people interact – I have friends at all levels of the firm.” One of the directors even hosted a virtual cocktail-making class. One particularly enamored source declared “I sound like a dork, but it really feels like a family. Everyone cares about each other.” Case in point, the firm offered its barista a general maintenance job during lockdown, rather than make them redundant.
“I have friends at all levels of the firm.”
Associates also felt the firm’s transparency “sets us apart. They tell us about things you’d think they’d only discuss with the most senior directors.” During the pandemic, “they told us how things were going every step of the way, which did a heck of a lot for my peace of mind!” Sterne Kessler was already prepared for remote working before COVID-19 struck. “Our IT team is incredible, so the transition was seamless,” associates said. On a pastoral level, “the professional development adviser reached out to all of us directly to make sure we were okay.” Virtual yoga, trivia nights, financial wellness seminars and a step-tracking competition are just some examples of the events the firm has put on during the pandemic “to ease stress and get us to focus on something else.”
Associates are asked to assess themselves against the firm’s attorney development spectrum, which outlines the skills they need at each stage of their career. “We’re asked what the firm can do to help too,” sources shared.In terms of training, there are weekly patent prosecution and litigation roundtables, and director Jorge Goldstein (ranked in Chambers USA) leads a weekly class on biotech patents – “he wrote the book on it!”
“Buddies are there to answer questions which might seem rude, like ‘when do we get paid?’”
Associates are assigned an associate buddy as well as a director mentor when they join the firm. “Buddies are there to answer questions which might seem rude, like ‘when do we get paid?’” Director mentors on the other hand are there to ensure their mentees have enough work, but juniors felt pretty comfortable with them too. “I tell mine everything,” said one. “Directors often show concern for me as a person. I’ve had offers from other firms which pay more but I just don’t want to leave Sterne Kessler.” In addition to those mentors, Sterne Kessler pairs minority associates with attorneys of a similar identity, “so that you get their perspective on what it was like for them to move through the industry.”
Diversity & Inclusion
Working remotely comes with mental wellbeing considerations, so "if you don’t want to see a therapist but need someone to talk to,” attorneys can book one-to-one sessions with the firm’s life coach (the benefit package includes counseling too). The firm also set up a parents’ group during the pandemic “so people could talk about working from home while raising kids, or new recipes… whatever the hell you like!”
The turbulent summer of 2020 prompted the firm to put on a month-long series of daily racial education talks, with titles like 'Be the Change: An Education and Skill-building Program to Interrupt Privilege and Bias.' Juneteenth was recognized as a holiday and there was a virtual minutes’ silence for people who died due to racial injustice. Juniors said “Sterne Kessler takes its numbers seriously” – at the recruitment level, there are spaces reserved on the summer program every year for minority 1L candidates.On the gender front, “the firm’s addressed issues like which pronouns to use.”
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: 34
Interviewees outside OCI: 92
Sterne Kessler meets most of its future summer associates at the annual Loyola Patent Law Interview Program (PLI) in Chicago – about 60% in fact. The remaining 40% 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 American University, 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, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest University. 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: 41
At the next stage, students have one-to-one interview 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 the 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 associate’s 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 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 managing director Mike Ray
Chambers Associate: How has the firm mitigated any disruption to firm life during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mike Ray: We were very fortunate to have made decisions in the months leading up to the pandemic which put us in a very strong position: we were one of the first firms to send employees home in March and we were already well-positioned for remote working. A number of our attorneys had been working from home maybe once a week so they were well versed in doing so. We’d also started several pilot programs for our staff to work remotely before the pandemic hit, too, so we already had the tools needed to work without disruption.
We saw a drop in our litigation work because the courts weren’t ready to deal with remote hearings and trials and some of our consumer product clients like airline and retail companies immediately saw drops in their sales which put large litigations on hold. However, our patent preparation and prosecution practice on both the biotech and chemistry side got busier whilst mechanical and electronic technology stayed steady so overall our workload stayed strong.
By Fall, litigation picked back up again. Some firms remained strong financially and some didn’t. Luckily, we’re one of the firms that did and we didn’t need to lay anyone off. Our directors took a pay cut for a short time (that has since been reversed and made whole), but we started the year strong so we carried on with bonuses and raises for all our staff and associates. Everyone was worried about wellbeing whilst working from home: some were isolated and many were caregivers, so within days of sending people home to work, I started sending nightly emails to everyone to give updates on how the firm was doing. We pulled the entire firm together for townhalls, then we pulled individual departments together so they could ask me questions, which kept the firm really close. We actually sent care packages with chocolate, fudge and caramel corn to everyone to let them know we were thinking about them. All of these touch points were well received and appreciated based on the feedback we received.
CA: What is the firm’s business strategy for the next couple of years?
MR: One thing that’s fundamentally important to us is to stay true to the fact we’re a specialist IP firm, so we’ll always look for new niches within that umbrella but not outside of IP. Something we’ve focused on for the past couple of years is counselling our clients on global IP strategy by talking to companies’ decision makers about their business goals so we can help them better align their strategy inside and outside the US: different systems in different countries have different advantages so we take a global and holistic view. For example, Germany is a very favorable jurisdiction because its court system for enforcing patents can be faster and less expensive than in other countries.
CA: Is there anything you think our readers should know?
MR: We’re often asked if we plan to open an office outside DC, but actually one single office can service the world. We considered opening additional offices but COVID-19 changed that. So for now, we don’t have any plans to open up anywhere new but we are growing the number of attorneys who work outside of the Washington Metro area, given we’re working remotely, which has caused us to re-think our office space. We’ve taken everything we’ve learned from the pandemic and are planning what our office will look like for the next 15 years.
We’ve learned most of our staff and attorneys want to work in the office only three or four days a week or less: it’s a trend we’ve seen coming for a few years but has arrived sooner because of the pandemic. We’ve actively pursued office space and we’re currently working with architects to design our creative and innovative office of the future which is very exciting for all of us.
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): 64
- Associates (US): 73
- Counsel (US): 18
- Main recruitment contact:Rob Hashimoto (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Hiring partner: Paul Ainsworth
- Diversity officer: Gaby Longsworth, Chair, Diversity Committee
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2020: 11
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2020:
- 1Ls: 0, 2Ls: 12
- Summer salary 2020:
- 1Ls: $3,300/week
- 2Ls: $3,654/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, 2021
District of Columbia
- Intellectual Property: Patent Prosecution (Band 1)