Patent Lawyer Careers: Salary Information & Job Description

About this article
A patent lawyer's median annual salary is $115,000, but is it worth the lengthy education, training and licensure requirements? Read real job descriptions and see the truth about the career outlook to decide if becoming a patent lawyer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Patent Lawyer Career

Pros of a Patent Lawyer Career
Opportunity to help people by protecting their rights to their inventions and helping them avoid legal problems**
Wages well above the U.S. average*
Gain expertise in complex area of law**
Job security, given large number of patents and recommendation to hire patent attorneys**

Cons of a Patent Lawyer Career
Lengthy and expensive educational process*
Must take a challenging test (state bar exam) to be admitted to the profession*
Lawyers often work long hours*
Patent lawyers require training and testing beyond passing the bar**
Law is a highly competitive field*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **General Requirements Bulletin, U.S Patent and Trademark Office.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Lawyers represent their clients in legal matters and in the event of a dispute. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists patent lawyers under the category of attorneys who specialize in intellectual property, meaning patents and trademarks as well as creative works. Duties of patent attorneys may include preparing, filing and prosecuting patent applications for clients. Additionally, patent attorneys can offer legal advice and representation. Patent lawyers are also responsible for understanding the rules of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Job Prospects and Salary

According to the BLS, the median salary for lawyers was $115,000 in 2014. Jobs for lawyers are expected to increase about 10% between 2012 and 2022. However, since qualified job applicants graduate from school each year, there's still a lot of competition for attorney jobs.

Education and Training Requirements

Requirements for Patent Lawyers

In order to be a patent attorney, you must first become a lawyer. This usually means four years of college for a bachelor's degree followed by three years of law school, culminating in a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. Most states require bar applicants to have earned their J.D. at a law school that's accredited by the American Bar Association. After earning your law degree, you must then pass a written bar exam in order to be licensed to practice (also called being admitted to the bar) in that state or jurisdiction.

Additionally, in order to present and prosecute patents before the USPTO you must be registered with them. According to the USPTO General Bulletin, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen, or legal alien. If you practice outside of the U.S., you must be in good standing with the patent office of your country, and they must offer reciprocal privileges.
  • Complete the application. In addition to your personal information, the application is where you show that you have the technical background needed to help your clients win patents on their inventions. You'll need to include transcripts to prove that you have a degree in a technical subject, such as biology, organic chemistry or in engineering. If not, you must have a bachelor's degree and be able to prove an acceptable amount of coursework in the technical fields recognized by the USPTO. The application also has questions about violations of the law or disciplinary actions against you. Applications have to be printed out, signed by hand and mailed to USPTO, with the appropriate fee for the application and the exam.
  • Take the exam. Once your application is accepted, you can sit for the six-hour, 100-question exam, which is given on computer at official testing centers. The test is multiple-choice, and questions are pulled from USPTO Manual of Patent Examination Procedure and other policy and procedure manuals (the manuals are listed online in the USPTO's Official Gazette).

Once you pass the exam, the USPTO will send you further instructions on completing your registration. At this point you must provide a certificate of good standing from the bar in your state or jurisdiction in order to be registered as a patent attorney. If you are unable to provide a certificate, you're listed as a patent agent.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Besides registration with the patent office, employers are looking for excellent academic credentials. Many employers are looking for expertise in a specific technical area. Here are real job postings available in April 2012:

  • A professional staffing company is looking to hire a patent attorney for a contract position in Atlanta. Qualifications include three or more years writing patents, at least three years of biotechnical experience, membership in the Georgia state bar, and registration with the USPTO.
  • An intellectual property law firm is looking for a patent attorney with an advanced degree in organic chemistry. Candidates must be registered with the USPTO and have at least two years of patent drafting experience. Stellar skills in writing and communication and stellar academic credentials are required. The person hired can work in any of the firm's offices, located in Georgia, Texas, Michigan, Connecticut or Washington DC.
  • A law firm is looking for an intellectual property/patent attorney with expertise in operating systems, telecom and mobile devices. Candidates must have a J.D. degree and be admitted to the bar in at least one state. Applicants must have a four-year technical or advanced degree in electrical or computer engineering (or related degree) and experience in wireless, optical or communications systems.

How Can I Stand out?

The requirements for becoming a patent attorney are very specific. The most important thing to do besides having a technical degree, graduating from law school with the best grades possible and passing the bar in your state or jurisdiction is to carefully study the USPTO general bulletin and other policy and procedure manuals. This will help you be certain that you meet all the requirements to successfully take and pass the USPTO registration exam.

Develop Related Skills

If you are in law school, check to see if your school is participating in the USPTO law school clinic program. This program gives students to opportunity to practice intellectual property law under a USPTO supervisor. You'll learn what it's like to prosecute patents and trademarks, and be more certain if this field of law is for you.

The American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) is open to state bar members and law students. It offers educational conferences and seminars, and online resources aimed at keeping members up to date on new changes in intellectual property law.

Get Certified

In addition to educational resources, the National Association of Patent Practitioners (NAPP), a nonprofit organization for patent attorneys and agents, offers a voluntary certification program. This program is designed for organization members who want to achieve beyond the minimum standards set by USPTO, and reach a level of best practice as established by NAPP.

Alternative Career Paths

Patent Agent

If you have the required technical background but don't have or want to obtain a law degree, you can practice before the USPTO as a patent agent. Agents must meet the same registration requirements as patent attorneys, but cannot give legal advice or represent clients in legal matters. The BLS does not specifically collect data on patent agents, but according to PayScale.com, a patent agent (non-attorney) earned $54,000-$140,000 in April 2012.

Patent Examiner

If you like the idea of studying new inventions but don't want to prosecute patents, consider working for the USPTO as a patent examiner. Examiners determine whether a new invention qualifies for a patent. Examiners research the patent database, legal documents, scientific literature and technical data as well as confer with patent experts in order to accept or reject all or part of an application. In addition to a bachelor's or master's degree, often in engineering or science, new examiners undergo an eight-month training program and two years of ongoing training by the USPTO. Examiners also take continuing education courses given by the USPTO. According to the BLS, entry-level patent examiners earned around $41,000 in 2009. Examiners with experience, promotions and good job performance earned between $94,000 and $122,000.

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