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MIP International Patent Forum: How to overcome COVID career challenges

Panellists at the virtual forum shared insights on how the pandemic has affected recruitment, career progression and mental health

This time last year it was hard to imagine that the 2021 Managing IP International Patent Forum would not take place in a London hotel complete with pastry and many opportunities for in-person networking.

But with the pandemic forcing many events to move online, a virtual conference is the next best thing.

After a year of working remotely, many intellectual property specialists have found unique opportunities and challenges in crisis, whether that be reconsidering their career goals or finding new ways to connect with colleagues.

Gordon Harris, partner at Gowling WLG in the UK, began the session yesterday, March 2, by asking panellists to describe how they have supported and guided new trainees in their respective companies when they can’t meet them in person to offer guidance.

Professional development

Will Chelton, chief legal officer at blockchain company nChain in London, told the audience that he is sympathetic to young employees and the impact COVID-19 has had on the start of their careers.

Not only do they lack the supervision that many trainees appreciate at the start of a new role, they also face challenging new circumstances from having exams cancelled and then rescheduled to take place online.

“We’ve had to ask trainees, ‘what do you need?’. You need to ask if you need to get permission for them to come into the office to take the exam – or if they are taking the exam from home, if they’ve got all the right IT equipment,” he said.

Chelton highlighted that another concern for young employees is the lack of availability to acquire new credentials or skills. He said that some of his employees have teamed up with other members of the company to see if certain skills can be taught internally.

Myrtha Hurtado Rivas, global head of legal brand protection at Novartis in Switzerland, said that a silver lining in the pandemic is that her employees have more opportunities to learn new skills by taking classes online.

“Before the pandemic, we were limited to classes available on-site. Now classes have gone online and become more available. Before, we could only offer classes to a few people. Now we are seeing that instead of two or three people, we can have four or five people on a course,” she said.

Second chance

With the pandemic shuttering offices and closing borders, aspiring young lawyers have had difficulty finding secondments in different companies. Chelton said that although his company has continued its secondment programme, he questions how much value the experience provides young professionals if all contact is through a virtual platform.

“Looking at secondments during COVID, I’ve had to ask, ‘does this even make sense to do right now?’. Don’t people want to learn the company culture, and are they going to get anything out of it? Some people are suspending their secondment programmes,” he said.

For Hurtado Rivas, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to recruit secondees from parts of the world where her company wouldn’t normally look for candidates. She added that COVID has presented unique challenges in recruiting new employees because it’s impossible to interview a candidate in person.

“I think one of the bigger challenges now is you have to learn to read smaller cues off people. We take more time in the first round of interviews to get a sense of people,” she said.

“We spend the usual amount of time on knowledge and capabilities, but we spend more time on the first selection to determine whether this person is a good fit for us.”

People skills

Grzegorz Wesela-Bauman, senior counsel at GE Power in Warsaw, added that he prefers to spend more time recruiting potential candidates so he can get a better feel for whether that person is an ideal fit for his team.

“You have to invest more time in the interview process to see what kind of person you are actually talking to. I try to have a one-on-one talk with the candidate. We have a big group interview, which is part of the recruitment process, but I want to talk to them alone,” said Wesela-Bauman.

According to Hurtado Rivas, one good thing about the pandemic is that it has given many people an opportunity to think more about what direction they want their career to go. She told the audience that several people have contacted her for career advice and opportunities at her company.

“People have become more courageous. The pandemic has made people ask themselves what they want to do, and they are looking at opportunities. I think it’s a good time to think where you want to go and the roles you are interested in.”

Blurred lines

While many intellectual property lawyers might appreciate working without a daily commute, it also means that some employees feel like the day has no set beginning or end.

Harris told the audience that commuting used to put ‘brackets’ around the day that separated home from office. “Now there is nothing to stop you from working. You have to encourage people to put those brackets around the day,” he said.

Constant connectivity has meant that ‘normal business hours’ has become a more flexible term. Combine that with lockdown measures in some countries, and many employees can experience mental health problems, especially if they are expected to work full time and care for children and other family members.

“We are London based with lots of young employees. The backdrop to the Zoom call is their bed. We are conscious that many of them are in shared houses,” said Chelton.

“They wake up in the morning and they stay in the same room all day. One thing that is important is offering people lots of flexibility to arrange their time in a way that best suits them.”

Lead by example

Hurtado Rivas added that, as bosses, team leaders have to act as good role models and admit when they fall short. As an example, she said she tries not to add unnecessary meetings to the agenda, and attempts to take regular breaks throughout the day.

“We have to remember to be good role models. When you get to 6pm, you are sleeping through Zoom meetings. I am also careful not to tell people I understand them, because often you cannot because the way the pandemic has affected everyone is so personal. I don’t know what people are going through.”

Hopefully next year the Managing IP International Patent Forum will return to a central London hotel where eager patent lawyers can share their stories in person over a drink. In the meantime, they can enjoy the chat and video functions on the virtual forum platform.

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