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Careers in Patent Law for Patent Agents
As ideas and technology have become the driving force of the modern economy, patent agents play an increasingly valuable role in securing the patents that protect and propel innovation. They are, as a result, sought after by law firms and corporations. "Engineers and scientist often decide on becoming patent agents because it broadens their career opportunities," says Mark Dighton, Training Services Director at PLI. "It's diverse and fascinating work and keeps you on the cutting edge of technology and science." “I spent many years in the chemistry field and I was looking for a radical change in my career. I realized how important it was to protect your invention especially in the current and future global economy,” says Dr. Gilles Bignan, a principal scientist with Johnson & Johnson who successfully passed the Patent Office Exam using PLI’s course.
The earning potential is also an incentive to consider a career as a patent agent. A patent agent can make up to $20,000 more than a scientist or an engineer. "I would have earned …less in industry than what I make as a scientific analyst ($20-25K more as an agent)," said Dr. Megan Clarey, a patent agent/scientific analyst with Morrison and Foerster, UC Berkeley grad (PhD. in Molecular and Cell Biology) and successful taker of PLI's Patent Office Registration Exam Course. Dr. Madhuri Roy, a scientific advisor with WSGR Patent and Innovations Strategies Group in California and another PLI Patent Office Registration Exam Course success, said his post doctoral salary “doubled” once he took and passed the patent office exam.
But the work can be demanding. "Even the most technically talented practitioner…must stay on top of deadlines and be responsive to client and coworker needs," said Dr. Clarey. "IP law cleanly intersects science, law and interestingly, client service. I enjoy the exposure to wider range of science and technologies," says Dr. Clarey. "A typical day can range from drafting provisional applications, office actions responses, "freedom to operate" analysis or PCT [Patent Cooperation Treaty] applications." It is also essential to have good communication and organizational skills to be a successful practitioner.
“There is a mix of solitary [and] team work, although ultimately everything is team work. As an agent I take care of the day to day matters for prosecution,” says Dr. Roy. It’s common a patent agent will see parallels between their work as an agent and as a scientist or engineer. “I am not conducting experiments. But the rigor, attention to detail, creativity, multi-tasking abilities required are generally similar,” said Dr. Roy. Working in this field also offers an opportunity for a flexible working environment. “I can work remotely….flexibility allows me to have more control. In lab, I was tied into an infrastructure (experiments, teachings [and] meeting with students),” said Dr. Roy.
But passing the Patent Exam is just the first step. It can take years to become proficient at drafting patents. Most work environments provide mentorship and training. "We are encouraged to participate in continued education through PLI and through firm-wide training and seminars," says Dr. Clarey. PLI provides a number of programs geared toward furthering your skills in the field, including for example, PLI's "Fundamentals of Patent Prosecution: A Boot Camp for Claim Drafting and Amendment Writing." Dr. Roy also plans on attending “PLI’s Patent Prosecution: Boot Camp” in the future. “I try to stay abreast of case law. I…read reviews in Science/Nature as often as I can. I have to come up to speed rather quickly and be in a position to perhaps suggest [the clients] next move scientifically,” Says Dr. Roy. PLI also publishes some of the leading treatises in the field, including "Faber on Mechanics of Patent Claim Drafting". PLI will be there every step of the way in your career in patent law.
If you do not have a degree that qualifies under Category A, or the proper coursework to qualify under Category B (engineers note specifically Option 4), you can probably qualify under Category C by passing the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE Exam).
Engineers Make Great Lawyers
The conventional wisdom is that the ideal undergraduate major for pre-law is political science. Other majors that are cited as helpful are philosophy and plain old liberal arts. This may well have been true 50 years ago, but it just isn't true today. The best undergraduate background may well be one in technology or finance.
Technology has insidiously entwined itself into our modern lives, and technology becomes more complex every day. A few decades ago all a trial lawyer had to know to try a medical malpractice case was some jargon and a rough idea of how surgeons carved up some specific part of the body. Now it would be unthinkable to even take on such a case without understanding the variety of drugs, machines and procedures available.
Fifty years ago patents were considered the provinces of those odd patent attorneys. They were nice to have, but businesses didn't rise or fall based upon patents or the lack thereof. Today, patent law is the hottest legal specialty with the highest salaries, and the highest reported job satisfaction. Most mega-firms now have a strong patent capability, and are looking to expand. While some patent litigators don't have a formal engineering or science degree, most do, and the Patent Office won't even let you sit for the Exam that allows you to practice before it unless you have that technical background.
Moreover, both science and engineering as disciplines are good preparation for law school. Law school will be taken up in analyzing a set of facts, replete with red herrings, applying some rules and articulating a result. It's all about analysis and problem solving and that's what scientists and engineers are trained to do. And most would agree that you will learn to work harder and smarter as an engineering or science undergraduate, than in the liberal arts.
Engineers as Law Students
Most graduating engineers and scientists understand the need for a post-graduate degree to prepare for a career that will be truly satisfying and lucrative. Taking a Master's program in your major is the obvious choice, but too few consider the option of law school. Law school is the next natural step for Dr. Roy who says, “I will probably attend full time, working only on a contract basis or during summer.”
In fact, law school is a perfect complement to an undergraduate degree in science or engineering. There is nothing in the typical pre-law college program that provides skills or knowledge that you don’t also get. It is true that most science and engineering programs do not emphasize writing and communication skills as much as pre-law programs, but that is balanced by the fact that a technical discipline is often more rigorous and accustoms the student to long hours and difficult material. To the degree that you have problems adjusting to the less “black and white” world of law school, rest assured that most employers of patent attorneys understand that some adjustment is required. They will be very forgiving of a weak performance in your first year, as long as you demonstrate that you understand and acted to rectify your disconnect with the less clear-cut nature of legal analysis.
A technical degree and legal training are also the ticket to entry into the fastest growing and extremely lucrative field of patent law. Despite the cartoons depicting patent attorneys as nerds with pocket protectors and law degrees, patent attorneys are often the best and brightest and are more and more sought after by the most prestigious law firms and corporations where intellectual property is the most important part of the business.
Questions or comments? Write to PLI's Patent Exam Office or call 888-296-5973.