STEM background? Interested in IP? Desire a “balance of legal and technical nerdiness”? You should take a look at this DC-based specialist firm.
WHAT you studied in college can easily fade by the time you finish law school. When staring at your first legal advice note, your once refined understanding of Arrow's impossibility theorem or the development of American exceptionalism may not seem so useful. This wasn't the case for our associate interviewees at this IP-focused firm in the heart of DC. Sterne Kessler very much likes hiring those with STEM backgrounds, as “we tend to be sought not just for our legal expertise, but for our technical and scientific expertise,” managing director Mike Ray explains. “Our clients have called us a powerhouse on the technology side; we have over 50 people here with PhDs, and around 30 with master's degrees, all in the science and technology fields.” One source mused: "My degree definitely helps. It provides a base to do further research. For example, in wireless communications there's math that's related to things like sine and cosine wave equations, which helps you understand the patent you are dealing with."
“We do all things IP.”
On the subject of patents: Sterne Kessler is top-ranked in Chambers USA for its patent prosecution know-how in DC. However, as Mike Ray points out, “we do all things IP, and have a very nice balance between our traditional patent and trademark work, and litigation before the likes of the US District Courts and the Patent Trial and Appeal Board [PTAB]. Also of note, our International Trade Commission [ITC] practice has had a particularly great year: we've been to trial at least three times and have been getting results for our clients.” In particular, trademark and brand protection has become a significant area for the firm.
The juniors on our list were pretty evenly split between the firm's mechanical, electrical, biotech and trial & appellate groups. To help get associates started, an 'internal professional development adviser' (typically a director – Sterne Kessler's equivalent term for a partner) is on hand to help steer newbies in the right direction. Sterne Kessler's biotech group covers a “broad spectrum” of clients, ranging from the expected biotech companies to mechanical and engineering outfits too. Of course, “most of the work comes from the pharmaceutical side,” and one source estimated that “one third of my work relates to litigation, another third to offering opinions and the final third to prosecution matters.” Interviewees added that the group provides a “dynamic environment” to work in: “On the prosecution side you have the opportunity to work with multinational companies and prosecute very important drug portfolios, but you can also draft opinions on freedom to operate clearances and get involved in litigation at an early stage. Sometimes you do some patentability and invalidity analysis too.” Overall, “you need a do a lot of critical thinking in order to develop strategies for your client. It's interesting and challenging work.”
Clients come from “all over the technology spectrum” in the trial and appellate group. “We do work for pharma companies, electronic car companies, software outfits, entities specializing in industrial machines...” Interviewees told us that the “four main” forums in which disputes play out are the district courts, the federal circuit, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and the International Trade Commission (ITC). The “pharmaceutical stuff” is primarily handled in the district courts, while electronics matters tend to play out in the ITC. Many cases had a relatively short timeframe, which kept things varied for our sources. "I went to three trials this year," one told us breathlessly, "and this week I am writing motions to compel, conferring with the other side and preparing some client presentations." And while they weren't yet on their feet delivering powerful closing speeches, juniors were certainly not confined to the office. As one source explained: "I usually don't get to speak at the court, but I've drafted a couple of cross-examinations and I've had the opportunity to second-chair and pass notes." For more on life inside Sterne's mechanical and electrical groups, click the 'Bonus Features' tab above.
Matters shifted more toward patent prosecution over in the electrical group, though litigious work was also on offer. Work normally starts with "the director getting an initial invention disclosure; I'll then be tasked with setting up a phone call with the inventors to understand the idea and draft the patent application. Inter partes disputes, however, are a little more team-based. We will set up a meeting and discuss our thoughts on what our argument should be for our brief and I will write the first draft." The mechanical group covers both prosecution and litigation matters. The subject of these matters can cover "anything from pure mechanical stuff like diesel engines and pumps to medical devices, consumer products and vending machines!" Our sources tended to lean more toward the prosecution side, and told us that tasks included “drafting patent applications, replying to office actions, negotiating with the patent office and handling all of the formalities tied to that. The framework is always the same, but the problem is always different; you always have a different puzzle to fit together.”
Recent clients: Volkswagen, Audi, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Pepsi. The firm handled over 500 design patents on behalf of Apple, including the 2018 settlement of the mega Samsung v. Apple case.
Hours & Compensation
“We have a system called flexible hours,” associates revealed. What this means is that associates can choose which hours target they would like to be on each year, ranging from 1,400 to 2,000 hours, with options rising in 100-hour increments. Most associates, we heard, opt to be on the 1,900 track. Hitting that number was felt to be “challenging, but doable. You need to try your best from the very beginning, which is tricky because you haven't established all of your relationships yet, but once you do, you'll probably get more and more work.”
“We will match those salaries to attract top talent.”
Each hours target comes with a different base salary. “Each year we know what the base compensation will be, as we have a table that lays it all out, and as long as you accomplish your target, you will get that base compensation.” For the ambitious go-getters out there, hitting 2,000 hours entitles them to the same market-rate base compensation that the Milbanks and Cravaths offer. “We will match those salaries to attract top talent,” juniors confirmed. Bonuses, however, are purely discretionary: “It's going to be up to many factors, including whether you reached your billable target and the quality of your work.”
We heard mixed views when it came to feedback, with one source stating that “the directors are willing to give it and do provide it,” while another interviewee felt that “a lot of it is director-dependent; some are really good at career development and get you involved in client communication and managing cases, whereas others are not so helpful.” Our sources were on the whole positive about their biannual formal reviews, however, and told us that “the directors provide comments and indicate areas for improvement.” They also appreciated that the guidelines for their development at each stage “have become more clearly defined since joining the firm.” We also heard that regular trainings are given to associates in order to keep everyone up to date and sharp when it comes to the latest developments affecting Sterne Kessler's areas of practice.
“Most people who are here and hit their hours do become directors.”
Juniors added that when they reach their seventh year at the firm they become eligible for an upgrade to the directorship. “Most people who are here and hit their hours do become directors,” interviewees revealed. As a general rule, aspiring directors should aim to hit an average of 1,900 hours each year if they have their eye on the promotion. “The quantitative requirements” were clear to sources: “You have to be here for a certain number of years [seven], and you have to have accumulated a certain number of billable hours over that seven-year period.” However, the seven-year point is not rigid, we heard; if someone is working flexible hours then it may take them longer to rack up the required level of hours, and when they do, they can subsequently be considered for promotion. The more qualitative factors that determine directorship appointments were a little murkier, but were thought to revolve around “your evaluations, how you interact with people and the quality of your work.”
“It's more of a background thing,” interviewees agreed when discussing the firm's approach to pro bono. “It's nice to do, but there's not a strong pro bono practice here. There are certain directors and associates who work on discrete projects, but it's not a central part of the firm.” Managing director Mike Ray explains: “We are patent attorneys, so we have in the past found it difficult to do pro bono broadly. Instead, the firm would do pro bono IP and donate to charitable causes.”
However, sources also felt that the firm had made efforts to address this, as demonstrated by its decision to establish an intellectual property and human rights practice in 2012. “The firm is continuing to expand its pro bono practice,” said one, and we heard that Sterne Kessler has increased its scope into “more traditional areas” like immigration, criminal appellant, and veterans work. Associates can officially count 50 hours of pro bono toward their annual hours target, and if they go over that amount “you can highlight it in your annual review to demonstrate how you've contributed to the firm.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 1,157
- Average per attorney: 10
“There is more of a startup vibe here,” one source commented when describing Sterne Kessler's culture. “It's a lot more relaxed: we don't wear suits every day and it's a more business casual environment. There's a hierarchy to some extent but it's a lot more horizontal than other firms. It's a meritocracy really, so if you work hard people will listen to and take note of you.” Other interviewees also highlighted that the merit-based approach didn't create an overly competitive atmosphere, and that the culture has remained distinctly more relaxed.
Some felt that what helps to keep the vibe calm is the “fact that we all understand each other and the jokes that we make. We do joke that we are a nerdy firm, and there are a lot of people with technical degrees. Overall, I think we've found that right balance between legal and technical nerdiness, and I certainly enjoy that.” With all this knowledge flying around, it was also no surprise to hear that “there's an academic feel here too; the firm is really good at giving lectures and talks that keep everyone up to speed on certain issues.”
Diversity & Inclusion
“I think recruiting and retaining women is an issue for all IP firms,” said one female source. “The IP field has more men; my law school class consisted of 20 people and only three were women, so it is harder on the recruitment front.” With STEM backgrounds in mind, sources added that “it can be easier to recruit women in specific fields; for example, more women tend to go into biology then engineering.” In order to combat the retention side of this issue, we heard that the firm “brought in an outside consultant to host a women's focus group. One of the outcomes of that was a request for more inclusivity, so the social committee has been planning events that everyone can go to and feel included, plus during meetings if someone is being quiet usually one of the directors will ask for their opinion. They value different thoughts and viewpoints.”
Strategy & Future
“One thing we are keenly focused on now is our international intellectual property strategy,” says managing director Mike Ray. “We think it's important to look beyond the US to provide our clients with solutions for their global IP challenges.” In addition, Sterne Kessler will also be keeping an eye out for “the next hot technology area. For example, right now we have a significantly growing practice in the automotive space, because mobile, computer and automobile technologies have been merging. We are also focusing on cutting-edge technology like blockchain and fintech.”
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: 30
Interviewees outside OCI: 85
Sterne Kessler meets most of its future summer associates at the Loyola Patent Law Interview Program – about 80% in fact.The remaining 20% come through a mixture of on campus interviews and resume collections. OCIs are conducted by directors and senior associates, and this year took place at George Washington University, University of Virginia, George Mason University and Brigham Young University. The firm also attended the Southeastern Minority Job Fair. 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: 46
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.” Candidates will also be taken out to lunch.
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 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.
Associates on the firm's internal professional development advisers: “You go to them for mentoring and for workflow issues,” one source explained. “If you feel like you want to do a particular type of work, you can go to them, express your interest, and they go to the relevant directors on your behalf to help you establish yourself.” It's also common for juniors to fill out weekly availability reports, which are then screened by practice group leaders to ascertain whose plate is full and whose could do with filling. In reality, however, “part of having a varied practice means being proactive, and that means reaching out to directors yourself and building up your internal clientele.”
Hours & Compensation
Working hours were on the more forgiving end of the Big Law spectrum, with most associates arriving between 8.30am and 9.30am and exiting between 6.30pm and 7pm. Busier times could see the hours stretch beyond these boundaries, but only "for a few days – maybe a week at the worst."
Interviewees told us that if people are going to leave, they tend to do so around the third or fourth year. They felt that the firm's name would carry weight if they were seeking IP-related jobs in other firms, or if they fancied going in-house: “Every company that develops anything is going to require patent counsel in house.”
Strategy & Future
Managing director Mike Ray adds that hings are also picking up on the litigious side as “there are big companies out there that have done less policing of their brands, but with so many counterfeit products on internet platforms such as eBay and Alibaba, they are now focusing on strong enforcement. We educate those clients on the level of counterfeiting that's happening and how we shut down counterfeiters, they are very receptive. It's an exciting practice, and one that is international in scope.”
Diversity & Inclusion
Managing director Mike Ray confirms that “special challenges” exist for IP firms because “the overall pool of candidates with both technical AND law degrees is much smaller,” but director of marketing and communications Kathryn Holmes Johnson adds: “We are trying to hit targeted populations in the pipeline to really raise awareness of IP as a career path. We have to reach minority candidates as early as high school or before and make them feel welcome in this field.”
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): 58
- Associates (US): 68
- Main recruitment contact:Rob Hashimoto (email@example.com)
- Hiring partner: Paul Ainsworth
- Diversity officer: Gaby Longsworth, Chair, Diversity Committee
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2019: 7
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2019:
- 1Ls: 2, 2Ls: 9
- Summer salary 2019:
- 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:
Sterne Kessler 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 a point person and buddy. A point person 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, 2019
District of Columbia
- Intellectual Property: Patent Prosecution (Band 1)