Thursday, May 17, 2012

Interview: Patent Law

Working at the UWs tech transfer office puts me in touch with a lot of scientists using their training in a non-traditional way.  I work directly with tech managers who have a portfolio of projects that they cycle through the development- moving from an idea, to a funded idea, to a company, or a patent or a license to another company.  This is a very cool job that I might talk about more later, but these tech managers also work in close contact with patent agents and patent lawyers.  In our office, these are all former researchers who've made the leap into law.  I got to sit down with a woman from an engineering background to talk about her move into law and her job now.

When we first sat down, she said, "you know, all you need to become a patent agent is to pass the patent bar, and that's really no big deal.  Seriously, just sign up, study for a couple weeks and take the test, and you can jump into law."  Hold that look of cautious surprise while we back up a bit.  Entering patent law is different than other forms of law- in order to sign up to take the Patent Agent Bar, you need a B.S. at least in a narrow list of technical or scientific fields.  If you have gone to law school following that degree, you can take the Patent Attorney Bar, which is a different exam.  I'm going to focus on the Patent Agent route, since there is no way I am going back to law school now. 

What the patent Agent does is help prepare and file documents related to patents with the US Patent and Trade Office (USPTO).  There are several levels of documentation that go in with a patent, depending on that nature of the patent and it's claims.  What this looks like on a day-to-day basis is juggling several projects, each which requires about 8-80 hours of work, and doing anything from prior art searches, provisional patent language to prosecuting (fancy lawyer term meaning "to persue") patents.  Sometimes patents come back from the patent office, and need a response, so you get to advocate for why your client's patent is different that patents 6,923,245.  In order to be effective, you actually need to understand the fundamentals of your patents well enough to distinguish it from other patents/ literature available.  Even though you don't "do" science in the traditional way, you really need to keep your understanding sharp and up to date.

A little more on the career path.  I've heard people say that a Patent Agent is kind of a dead-end job, there isn't room for advancement.  It's probably true that your job title doesn't change much over time, but my contact had a little more perspective on it.  She said that most people start out in a law firm for at least a couple of years.  You work with all the lawyers in that firm and really get experience in the entire life cycle.  She said (and I was stifling a smile here), you really need to develop a tough skin and be prepared to put in long hows.  You'll be doing a lot of work, getting different types of criticism from the partners.  The stakes are high and the deadlines are short, so there is a lot of pressure.  The hours can be long and the intellectual labor is exhausting.  But after a couple years at a law firm, you have enough experience to pursue another position, like her position at the University, or in a USPTO office.  In her position, she manages the law firms that are contracted to do a lot of that work for the tech transfer office.  Or to work part-time, or generally take more control over your career. I'm not sure what the job opportunities for Patent Agents are right now or are predicted to be in the near future.

That said, this doesn't sound all that different from post-docing (or graduate school, she had a B.Sc. in engineering before making the switch).  Except for the pay.  The USPTO reports the average salary for a patent agent is $74500.

Back to the bar then.  It's a 3 hour exam, you can probably take at your nearest testing center.  You need to pass with a 70% score.  The fee to take the exam is a few hundred dollars (which feels like a lot when you are out of work), but could provide some new exciting opportunities.  Or, if you decide you don't like it, it doesn't shackle you to the debt of law school.  For a career that is a dynamic, challenging way you use your training, the barriers to entry don't seem too high. 

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