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For firms with strong intellectual property law practices, an understanding of science and engineering is as important as a knowledge of the law. Clients in the fields of biotechnology, chemistry, electronics, and engineering want lawyers who understand their business. And the place to start recruiting and keeping these lawyers is the summer associate program. That’s why the summer associate program is at the core of Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox’s recruiting and retention plan. The primary focus of the summer program continues to be training individuals for the practice of intellectual property law. The goal is that any summer associate who joins the firm will go back to school with a better-than-basic knowledge of patent law. The program is intentionally kept small, with a maximum of 12 summer associates a year, so that each summer associate has a high-quality experience. Summer associates spend 10 weeks as part of a team of professionals who work with clients in industries including nanotechnology, telecommunications, computer hardware and software, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices. The purpose of the program is to offer law students with technical backgrounds an opportunity to use their earlier experience to enhance their legal experience. Often, those who are most sought after possess a Ph.D. in science or engineering. Former summer associates come from a range of jobs: engineering, research and development, patent work, process development, research, and various levels of academic work. Associate Michelle Holoubek says: “One of the best things about the summer experience at SKGF is the ability to dive right into practical experience. For example, as a summer, I was able to work on prosecution from ongoing cases, research interesting legal issues, and even draft my first patent application.” A number of firm directors (who are the equivalent of partners at other firms) started their legal careers as part of a Sterne Kessler summer class. Tim Shea, a director in the biotech group with a biology background and close to three years of industry experience at the time of his summer associate interview, says what initially attracted him was “the firm’s reputation as a biotech leader.” What made him stay was the fact that he was “given a lot of opportunity, diverse work, and a taste for patent law.” Today, Sterne Kessler has 40 Ph.D.s in a wide range of technical areas related to science and engineering, including chemistry, pharmacology, organic chemistry, microbiology, biochemistry, genetics and cell biology, electrical engineering, molecular and cellular physiology, physics, and computer engineering. The firm continues to realize a high return and retention rate for individuals who have been in the summer program. One reason might be because they are able to contribute immediately to serving the clients, since they can be called upon to read and understand technical disclosures, perform patent and literature searches, and aid in drafting patent applications from their first day with the firm. Steve Ludwig, chairman of the firm’s recruiting committee, says that “hiring Ph.D. scientists makes communication more efficient because it reduces the time required to understand complex technology. The clients enjoy speaking with legal professionals who speak their language.” One of the highlights of the summer program is the firm’s patent prosecution course, taught by directors from each technology group. This course was initially designed by Ed Kessler, director of the firm’s electrical practice group. “The SKGF patent prosecution course was an outgrowth of the individual training I started doing when the firm was in its infancy,” Kessler says. “Rather than have each new associate ask me the same questions separately, I decided it would be more efficient to gather them together in one place at the same time. Since most of our associates at that time had no prior patent experience, I had to train them in the basics of writing and prosecuting patent applications. Out of that early training, we developed our formal training program as it stands today.” The program is now offered twice a year. The summer course is a slightly abbreviated version of the one for new associates in the fall. Although both sessions are open to everyone in the firm, they are designed to be most beneficial to entry-level legal professionals, including technical specialists, patent agents, student associates, and associates. Once the training was implemented for the firm, it seemed logical to see if any law schools would be interested. For nearly the past 10 years, Sterne Kessler attorneys have taught it as the patent application writing theory and practice course at George Mason University School of Law. Overall, the summer program aims to provide summer associates with a realistic view of what it is like to be an intellectual property lawyer. Summer associates are not relegated to a back room just going through files. Instead, they might respond to portions of an office action, draft portions of patent applications, search for prior art, draft interrogatories, or conduct legal research. Associate Tracy Muller notes: “The summer program isn’t an artificial environment that is nothing but one social event after another. We were assigned real, billable work and got a sense of what it is really like to work here.” Racquel Keller is the professional development and recruitment manager at Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, based in Washington, D.C.

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