Sarah Hennebry

Increasingly, new trainee patent attorneys are required to have a strong technical background, given the complexity of the inventions they will be working on.

Sarah Hennebry BA, BSc (Hons) 2003, PhD 2007, MIP Law 2013

After majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for her Bachelor of Science, Sarah Hennebry planned a career in research, beginning with a PhD at the Bio21 Institute. At that time, she never imagined she’d end up as a patent attorney.

Sarah’s PhD involved studying a group of proteins that have evolved to take an important role in hormone transport. She went on to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, where she studied proteins that regulate blood pressure.

After a couple of years as a postdoc, Sarah decided that a career in research was not for her, after all.

“I still really wanted to stay in science,” she explains. “So I started looking for careers that enabled me to use that really strong technical background, and kept me at the cutting edge of science, but without being in a lab environment.”

After undertaking a couple of subjects as part of a Masters of Intellectual Property Law at the Melbourne Law School, Sarah applied for a position as a trainee patent attorney at Freehills Patent Attorneys. Sarah had also studied criminology as an undergraduate, but the job required no previous legal training.

While it may seem that the leap from laboratory researcher to patent attorney is unusual, Sarah says the pathway she took is similar for many new patent attorneys.

“Increasingly, new trainee patent attorneys are required to have a strong technical background, given the complexity of the inventions they will be working on. Of course, they also need to have excellent written and verbal communication skills but there is no specific requirement that juniors have any legal training when they commence working as trainees,” she says.

The work, which involves preparation of legal and scientific arguments as to why particular inventions should or should not be patented, is very technical and detailed, but unlike specialised research, it is a lot of details about a lot of different things, so Sarah has to be on top of the latest research across many fields.

“The inventions that I work on relate to new treatments for a variety of medical conditions (including inflammatory disease, cancers, and cardiovascular disease), but also genetically modified crops and related inventions for use in the agricultural industry,” she says.

Sarah says she was lucky that during her PhD she was able to expand her knowledge by collaborating with a number of different departments.

“I was in the Department of Biochemistry, and that was located at Bio21, but I collaborated extensively with the Department of Microbiology, and to a lesser extent the Department of Genetics. And I think that sort of breadth really helped build that foundation of interest in a lot of different aspects of science. And that has helped me with what I’m doing now.”