Even before she began her studies, Isabelle Schubert knew where her career path would lead her. When asked about her profession, her eyes beam with delight. Her work as a patent attorney not only gives her joy but also keeps her on her toes because it requires staying on the ball with the newest developments in science, the law and business. But this keen jogger, yogi and horse rider keeps more than mentally fit.
How does one become a patent attorney?
A prerequisite is a degree in science or engineering, then three years of training in a patent law firm, in industry or at the European Patent Office, followed by quite a tough final examination – which only about 30% manage to pass. That’s why we are not a dime a dozen (she laughs). But the high failure rate is not the only reason. Many people just can’t imagine how exciting this profession can be.
And how did you become interested in it?
In a fairly direct way. Most stumble across this profession by chance while studying science. However, my goal was clear to me already as I started at the Biozentrum. I originally wanted to study international law. But, as things sometimes happen in life, after one year in Canada, I was not drawn to my university place in Fribourg but rather back to Basel, where, one could say, I followed in my stepfather’s footsteps, who introduced me to this also very internationally orientated possibility.
What fascinates you about your job?
The job’s many facets and that I am constantly in a process of further educating myself. On the one side, I have to keep my finger on the pulse of developments in science, in order to understand and analyze the inventions and to be able to identify what is in fact new, is applicable in industry and is in principle patentable. But also case law is evolving further. Furthermore, as a patent attorney, one has a very deep insight into a company and deals with many professional partners on every level. In the case of a new patent, our first contact is with scientists or medical doctors involved in scientific research and development. Whereas when the patent of a block-buster drug is running out, the company management comes into play. But I also maintain constant communication with people in marketing, regulatory affairs and the legal and license departments. And the best is that from year to year one is getting better and with time can also share one’s knowledge with younger colleagues.
Nevertheless, after 20 years at Novartis, don’t you sometimes yearn for something new?
To be quite honest, it is constantly new. Only in May, I began a new job and in the first fifteen years I changed jobs internally every two years, also in regard to the area of science. I worked with dyes, and then was involved in the Seedcare department, then in the field of nutrition and finally in pharmaceuticals. Over time, I also moved to dealing with patent disputes, to take over tasks in the financial area and immersed myself in the Life Cycle Management program.
Has a patent ever turned out to be a complete surprise?
This shouldn’t really happen (she laughs). Our goal is to be able to fairly accurately anticipate the strengths of a patent or the developments in case law. The more innovative and unique an invention, the easier it is to carry the patent application through right to the end, as hardly anyone would attempt to challenge this. There are also inventions that are not so distant from the prior art. In such cases, it is not unusual that a court will have to decide if the patent is valid and infringed or may be copied by others. Then it gets exciting again for us. Should the decision be in our favor, we as a team are naturally very pleased because, on the one hand, it confirms our assessment and, on the other hand, this also involves a lot of money.
Being under time pressure is also part of this profession. How do you deal with stress?
I think that generally the work pace has increased in many professions. I very consciously set aside time for other things. I find a balance through jogging, yoga, meditation or horse riding and naturally when I spend time with my family. And also during my working day, I take small breaks to prevent going home stressed, which I don’t want to do to my family.
Speaking of family: You have two daughters. How do you manage to balance your commitment to your job and your family?
I have been very fortunate that part time work was always possible. When our first daughter was born, I and later also my husband reduced our work to 80% and had an alternate free day so that we needed day care for only three days a week. When our second daughter arrived, I temporarily worked only 60%. Now that the girls are 13 and 17 years old, I can work fulltime again, one day, however, is a home office day. Clearly, you must make some compromises when you are not at home full time, so things like homemade cakes are not often to be found at my place. But as the children grew in age, we always found a good solution, whether it was to have a nanny, daycare or, until recently, with the help of a housekeeper. And of course, there are times when it does become much. And then it’s important to reload the batteries.
Some of your team are not just next door, but work on other continents. Does this require a special approach from your side?
Today we have many tools at our service to simplify our communication. Along with our regular telephone calls, we also have an exchange over a type of “Skype” and a chat platform. We can also share our desktop and simultaneously work on the same document. However, this doesn’t simply turn the employees into a team. Only last week we devoted two days to team building programs via video. And one has to be aware, that a part of the message may not come across. In a telephone conference, I sometimes need to add that all in the room are nodding in agreement.
Besides the science you learnt, what has remained from your time at the Biozentrum?
Mainly the friendships that have stayed with me. I still have contact to colleagues from the lab and I also meet some from my time as a student now and again. Here at Novartis I also come across familiar faces from my Biozentrum days.
Isabelle Schubert completed her Masters in Molecular Biology at the Biozentrum in 1989. She then left for a year to go to the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, close to Caracas, and returned to the Biozentrum for a further year. A two and a half year practical work position followed at the patent attorney company, the “Patentanwaltskanzlei A. Kerr & Co” in the Basel region. In 1993, she received her Certificate in Intellectual Property Law from the University of London and then earned the qualification of European Patent Attorney in 1995. Isabelle Schubert has been working for Novartis for more than 20 years and during this time has managed various international patent attorney teams in the USA, Great Britain, China, India and Basel.