Thoughts on EQE Training
B. Cronin (CH)
The EQE was set up to provide high quality input for the EPO. This article explores developments in EQE training, how training unfolds until about 80% of candidates qualify, why teaching and learning come naturally to our profession due to EQE training, how candidates naturally pick up professional techniques as part of their training, and why EQE training has made a major contribution to EPO quality. A follow-up article uses the notion of learning outcomes to assess the effectiveness of exam-driven training
The EQE has proven itself to be effective for promoting professional training throughout Europe and I strongly believe that this exam-driven training is of capital importance for our profession and the European patent system. I would like to illustrate this by covering the following topics:
- The early years of the EQE and training
- Training possibilities
- Training over the long term
- Exam-applied professional techniques
- Contribution of the EQE to quality
Early years of the EQE and training
Let’s begin by looking at the early years of the EQE and how it served as driving force for training in Europe. The creation of the EQE is a tribute to the foresight of the European Patent System’s founding fathers. From the outset, instituting a qualifying exam was perceived as a way of promoting high quality input for the European Patent Office over the long term.
The EQE started in the early 1980’s. The small number of candidates sitting the exam nevertheless created a need for training, which led initially to CEIPI and QMC setting up preparation courses. This had two implications:
- The compulsory on-the-job training period is a necessary pre-requisite to taking the exam, but is not enough to do well in the exam. That is still true today.
- The exam itself tests whether candidates are at the level required to pass but does nothing to educate them to reach this level. This is where specific training comes in because candidates need to complement their work experience.
So right from the beginning, the exam has been the driving force for training in Europe. Gradually, more and more training possibilities were provided as the number of new recruits to the profession increased. Correspondingly the EQE underwent major revisions in the 1990’s, making the exam fairer but more difficult to pass, so the annual pass rate declined.
Exam-specific training responded to demand and now includes: EQE preparation courses directed to one or more exam papers; mock exams organised by various associations; preparation schemes with a series of exercises and mock exams, like the ASPI training in France, as well as CEIPI’s pre-prep courses, cramming courses and resitters courses in addition to the original seminars. Deltapatents became a major course provider and supplier of course materials. The EQE Forum provided on-line training possibilities. Inauguration of the pre-exam gave rise to dedicated training courses. Tutorials, where candidates hand in work for discussion with a tutor, are also offered.
These external courses represent the visible tip of EQE training, most of which involves individual candidates doing personal work on exam papers that they self-correct based on the examiners reports, possibly with support from a tutor. Personal work on the exams is complemented by work experience coordinated with the exam preparations.
In addition, the CEIPI-epi decentralised basic training is an hors d’oeuvre to specific exam preparations.
Training over the long term
In my view, the effectiveness of training could be judged by the professional proficiency achieved by the trainees, assessed over the long-term.
Let’s consider the training path of our recruits over 8 years in terms of what they do and what they achieve. For the first couple of years trainees lay a foundation for their future competence by practical work on the job to provide a working knowledge of the patent system. This is combined with some study that typically includes the long-term basic course. During this period, the trainees are students learning from their supervisors who are treated like fountains of knowledge.
The amount of supervision is very variable. Some will be left to fend for themselves. Others are spoon fed. After the foundation period, the thrust of exam training is how to apply knowledge in the practical context of serving a client. The pre-exam provides an opportunity to begin exam preparations earlier than in the past, by starting work on the multiple-choice legal questions, which is a good exercise in time management, and on claim analysis which begins attention to claim scope and clarity.
The pre-exam encourages candidates to begin preparations for the main papers a full year before the exam. In the past, many candidates began serious preparations only 6 months preceding the exam, leading to massive overload. Exam preparations consist mainly of work on past papers, progressing towards an undefined level of fitness to practice.
External courses constitute an important aspect of EQE training. They enable trainees to step out of the office and focus on the exam. Courses accelerate progress and prompt trainees to pick up knowledge and techniques needed for the exam and which they can also use at work.
The exam papers simulate a European Patent Attorney’s work in servicing the needs of a client. The papers set tasks the trainee has to accomplish in accordance with the client’s requirements. These tasks correspond to our core activities – drafting claims and an introduction - replying to an EPO communication – drafting a statement of opposition – replying to a client’s legal questions and providing a legal opinion. So the exam tests core skills expected of a European Patent Attorney.
Practicing with past exam papers implies proceeding by trial and error or, as I prefer to say, by the correction of errors. Trainees start by familiarisation with the papers and gradually accelerate until they finish in time, always correcting errors so the answers progressively become more reliable. Making errors and correcting them straightaway is a powerful learning mechanism. Failure to promptly and properly correct during preparation definitely leads to poor performance during the exam.
The exam papers constitute excellent learning materials. By tackling these papers the trainees learn a lot and develop professional skills they can deploy at work. The content of the exam papers takes trainees beyond their day-to-day work experience, which enhances their development.
What’s more the exam papers provide trainers with ready-made course materials. All EQE training courses use past exam papers as examples to be worked through with a view to preparing for the next year’s exam.
By striving to meet up to the exam client’s expectations, the trainees evolve from being students who ask questions and need supervision to becoming qualified professionals who are competent to answer questions and supervise others, i.e. they go through a transition period culminating with an acknowledgement of their ”fitness to practice“ when they succeed in the exam. Some trainees achieve full success in the exam after only 4 years experience. Others take longer, possibly repeating one or more papers. About 80% of the candidates pass eventually, some first time and others after several resits. Considering those who first sat the exam in 2000, the statistics show that about 26% passed at the first attempt, 48% by year 2, 64% by year 3, 71% by year 4, and 75% passed by year 5. The overall pass rate then levels off to 80% by year 8.
In other words, the transformation rate of greenhorns into qualified professionals was 64% by 6 years in the profession (exam year 3) or 75% by 8 years in the profession (year 5). The difference is not in the level of proficiency reached, but the duration of the training period to achieve this level.
The missing fraction (about 20 %) who never qualify is made up of those who leave the profession and those who remain in the profession but gave up hope of passing the exam, for instance working as national patent agents, patent liaison or patent engineers. Many of these are part qualified and will have made progress through their exam experience.
From exam year 2 onwards there is an ever-decreasing number of resitters many of whom have a partial success. Overall, resitters make up about two thirds of the successful candidates.
Repeating one or more papers of the exam has the positive effect of inducing the candidates to extend their training period until they demonstrate that they have reached the fit to practice threshold. Repeating a paper once or twice proves beneficial in most cases because the candidates gain insights through the efforts they put in. There is however a danger of getting into a cyclic failure mode as a result of disjunctive training : hard work in a few months preceding the exam, followed by doing nothing in the summer.
Multiple resitting can be soul-destroying for individuals and doubt-engendering for their entourage. Multiple resitters are nevertheless characterized by their perseverance coupled with a determination to prevail over the examiners. When an experienced candidate finally succeeds, he or she can relish in the hard-acquired status as European Patent Attorney. Some go on to become accomplished tutors.
8 years from entry into the profession, we have a majority (say 75%) of qualified European Patent Attorneys who trained for and passed the exam, and about 5% of resitters who passed 2 or 3 papers and are still battling on towards later qualification.
When qualified, the new generation maintain their enthusiasm for learning, and continue their professional development in a harmonious way by taking on new professional challenges, by becoming tutors or by joining the examination corps, and frequently by supervising young trainees of their firm or department.
8 years seems a long time, but is shorter than the time it takes for an experienced professional to reach maturity in a non-examination context. This typically takes 10 years or more. Moreover, it is questionable if working experience alone can suffice to reach the level of proficiency of an exam-qualified European Patent Attorney.
8 years is also short compared to the expected remaining career duration, which is 25-30 years for someone who qualifies at age 35 or 40.
In addition to achieving fitness to practice on core activities, the new generation use their newly-acquired competence as a basis for expanding the scope of their activities beyond the exam. They do this by defending oppositions, taking part in oral proceedings, perhaps some experience of litigation as well as other aspects of IP like trademarks, designs, licensing and so on. All this follows on naturally from the learning capacity on core aspects developed through exam preparation.
Measuring the effectiveness of exam training over the long term in this way, provides a satisfactory picture. An overall 80% success rate in the exam is something to be proud of. Saying that over 10,000 candidates have passed is better than making an issue of the low pass rate each year.
Teaching/learning and why it comes naturally to our profession
Patent Attorneys perform a wide span of activities. One of these activities is teaching that we perform naturally, often without realising its importance.
First, we have to educate our clients about the patent system and in particular to guide them through the system and answer their questions. This applies in private practice and in industry. And of course our clients also educate us about their technology and interests, so teaching is a two-way exercise.
Second, we have to educate administrative staff in addition to supervising them. For this we need the legal expertise on formalities developed by the exam.
Third, we have to educate and guide our trainees so they will be able to supervise and educate the next generation in due course.
Fourth, many European Patent Attorneys become tutors and lecturers, and through teaching continue to learn. So our profession is involved in a complete learning/teaching cycle. Just as teaching is an important aspect of the our activities, learning is too. At work we are constantly faced with new inventions and technologies and keeping up with developments in the patent system.
Learning begins as soon as a trainee enters the profession and increases exponentially as exam preparations take over. The exam provides trainees with the incentive to qualify and the motivation to learn. This ensures a very rich learning phase during exam preparations and fosters life-long learning.
Incentive and motivation are keys to the effectiveness of exam-driven learning. Once the stress of the exam is past, the motivation to keep learning is intact and newly-qualified European Patent Attorneys embark on new professional challenges and keep learning all the time, in particular by teaching.
It follows that learning/teaching for the exam is part of our professional development. In teaching, our role evolves from being knowledge transmitters to becoming learning facilitators where we share our learning experiences with trainees.
In preparing for the EQE many trainees attend courses. They are attentive and motivated. They learn substantive issues and pick up professional skills on the way. They also notice the course organisation and format. For some this is an inspiration. A few years later they join as tutors in one of the tutorial schemes and later become course leaders in exam preparation courses.
The fact that new trainers are coming from the ranks of successful candidates, is a natural progression. The individual exam papers offer excellent training materials directed to our core activities and take the trainees into new areas, so gradually they conquer more and more new territory until it forms the baggage of a trained European Patent Attorney ready to teach the next generation.
The ease with which trainees develop into teachers stems from the suitability of the EQE papers as training materials. The trainees are impregnated with past papers during their exam preparations. When they become teachers, using future papers as examples comes naturally.
Exam-applied professional techniques
The exam papers are complemented by our professional tools needed to solve them, such as the novelty matrix or features matrix, and time lines in various formats for showing dates in different contexts. All such tools can be applied in the exam context, so the exam training serves to reveal new tools to trainees who learn how to apply them.
Standard argument formats like the problem-solution format for inventive step or a word-by-word equation for demonstrating lack of novelty also find their application in the exam and constitute effective learning/teaching tools. Exam training also disciplines candidates into inputting information from the written documents in an efficient way because they have to finish the exam papers in a limited time, which for many candidates seems rather short. To input the information efficiently, trainees need to refine their everyday reading techniques. They have to become proficient in scanning and reading a document for a specific purpose. For example, in drafting, candidates read the clients letter with a view to spotting any information for supporting patentability, like advantages. Another example is the opposition paper where candidates read the patent to be opposed with a view to finding ammunition for the opposition, like effects associated with the claim features that can be worked into a problem-solution attack for obviousness. All patent professionals practice purposeful reading and exam training helps trainees to master this technique.
Apart from the pre-exam, the answers for all exam questions have to be presented in writing. Handwriting is a means of outputting information that many of our trainees do not exercise in their jobs. Most candidates nevertheless manage to produce answers in more-or-less legible scripts. No doubt improvement of handwriting is possible, but the purpose of the EQE is not to promote the art of calligraphy. It aims to make candidates present reasoned statements that are simply legible. Candidates rightfully do not concentrate on penmanship but on ways to condense the extensive papers into notes that they convert into a reasoned output. In so doing, they reduce an unstructured input into a structured output according to their plan that is built up in a specific way depending on the particular task : drafting, replying to a communication, opposition and legal opinion.
Part of the success of our exam-driven training comes from the fact that we do not set out to learn professional techniques. Candidates set out to accomplish the client’s tasks specified in the exam papers and they pick up professional tools and techniques on the way. It is these tools and techniques that have a lasting effect on professional performance.
Contribution of the EQE to quality
The European Patent Office has become obsessed with quality. This has led to initiatives like ”raising the bar“. Yet the EPO already has a high quality input largely as a result of EQE training over the years.
From the early 1990’s we started teaching candidates how to reply to an official communication. In the beginning, the candidates did not have a clue how to do this. They had received no training and were left to swim. As a result of the ongoing exam training, a reply format meeting up to ”best practices“ has become standard and is implemented on a large scale.
The standard of real opposition statements has evolved considerably, due mainly to the fact that former EQE candidates when faced with real oppositions have based their statements on what they learnt for the exam. In other words, EQE survivors have been setting the standards for best practice that the EPO is campaigning to generalise.
This means the EQE has been meeting up to its ”raison d’être“ which – as I said at the outset - was to provide high quality input to the EPO. That result stems not from the exam itself but from the exam-driven training that has set the standards for our daily practices. It follows that exam-driven training has been of capital importance not only for our profession but also for the success of the European patent system. The effectiveness of exam-driven training is examined in a follow-up article.
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Le EEQ a été créé pour fournir un apport de haute qualité à l'OEB. Cet article explore l'évolution de la formation EEQ, comment la formation se déroule jusqu'à ce qu’environ 80% des candidats soient qualifiés, pourquoi l'enseignement et l'apprentissage viennent naturellement à notre profession en raison de la formation EEQ, comment les candidats acquièrent naturellement des techniques professionnelles dans le cadre de leur formation, et pourquoi la formation EEQ a apporté une contribution majeure à la qualité de l'OEB. Un prochain article utilise la notion de « résultats d'apprentissage » pour évaluer le rendement de la formation dérivée des examens.