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Summary: Besides a Ph.D., find out what law firms are usually looking for when selecting a new patent agent in this Q & A article.
Question: I recently got my Ph.D. and would like to become a patent agent, but am not getting any traction from applying to law firms – why is this?
Answer: A lot of folks who have worked extremely hard to earn a Ph.D. from a top institution find themselves not quite sure of their next career move once they have received their terminal degree. Some go into academia, some go on to research labs and institutions, some work in the research and development divisions of private science, medical, or technology companies, and some decide that they’d like to enter the patent world.
For this latter group, the decision is often sparked not by a particular passion for or prior interest in practicing patent law – it is simply something they know other Ph.D. holders have done, and are drawn to the steady paycheck being a technical specialist and/or patent agent represents. We get a lot of candidates who have a notion they want to be a patent agent, but do not have a strong idea of exactly what that entails. And in a number of instances, they find that the practice either does not suit them (the law firm world is very different from academia and research – it is a commoditized, profit-driven enterprise with tight deadlines, demanding clients, and long hours), or that the very specialized technical writing of patent applications does not line up with their skill set or expectations, and as a consequence they leave the practice after a short period of time for other ventures.
Law firms tend to have figured this out, and are by and large fairly cautious and stingy in their hiring of candidates without prior patent experience. It is very time consuming for a busy attorney to train a newly minted patent agent in the particular skill set of patent drafting. Therefore, most firms looking to hire are looking for patent agents with significant prior drafting experience (two or more years is typically the minimum sought in lateral hiring). Only a handful of firms ever list entry level patent agent positions.
This dynamic leads to the paradox of would-be patent agents wondering how they can get the required experience to be hired by a firm when they can’t get hired by a firm to gain the required experience. Generally speaking, there are a couple things that candidates can do to demonstrate their commitment and increase their chances of gainful employment by a law firm.
First and foremost, anyone who is serious about becoming a patent agent should study for and sit for the USPTO exam – I have had countless candidates tell me they are “willing” to do this if a firm requires it, but the thing is that almost all firms and patent practices require this credential. Why would a firm hire a patent agent who is not yet USPTO licensed and will have to take time off of working to study for and sit for the exam?
Second, candidates should look for any avenue they can to develop patent drafting experience – perhaps in a part-time internship setting, a patent clinic at a law school, in collaboration with a patent attorney on an invention the candidate has developed, or other means. Firms reviewing candidate applications will frequently ask how many patent applications a candidate has drafted, and in what technical areas. Candidates who cannot point to a published patent application they drafted as a writing sample will generally be passed over, so any avenue to obtain this type of drafting experience will be helpful toward the goal of being hired by a firm.
While both taking the USPTO exam and drafting patents outside the context of a steady employed position within a firm might seem daunting for an entry-level would-be patent agent, it is essentially the price of admission – simply having a Ph.D. alone, even from a top institution, is not sufficient given the way law firm businesses are structured. Becoming a patent agent and getting hired by a law firm is difficult, though it can be a very rewarding career for those who truly do have an interest in practicing patent law, and not just because they have not found something else to do with their Ph.D.
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