Profile: Patent Attorney

ask the lawyer by santheo

You too could be a sought-after legal adviser. Image by flickr user santheo.

Want people trying to get your expert advice for free all the time? Like rules and details? Then a patent attorney may be the job for you. So, yay! But what is it? According to wisegeek, "A patent attorney is a specialist attorney with the qualifications to represent clients seeking patents and to carry out other procedures related to securing and protecting patents. A patent is protection that the government grants an inventor in the form of a guarantee of having the sole right to make and sell the invention for a designated period of time. We can speak of the patent attorney in terms of the steps she or he has taken to be so designated as well as in terms of the services and jobs he or she performs." And if you can get through that definition without your eyes glazing over, then this career is maybe something you should look into. Eyal Barash definitely could whiz right through that paragraph. He's the chief intellectual property counsel for Endocyte, a biopharmaceutical company based in West Lafayette, Indiana "in the area of folate-targeted therapies and diagnostics." He also has his own law firm, working mainly in the pharmaceutical area. And he really loves his job. "Patent law is a great career where you combine the best of science with the excitement of commerce and the law. In the area of pharmaceuticals it is especially important since the barrier to competition is generally low," he said. Barash started out studying chemistry because of "a fabulous high school chemistry teacher in West Lafayette," he said. He got a B.A. in history and a B.S. in chemistry from Indiana University, where he did some undergraduate research in solid-state NMR. He liked that pretty well, and went on to UC Berkeley and got a Master's degree from Alex Pines. Then he went to law school at Northwestern.

Eyal Barash, very happy to be wearing his IU chemistry shirt. Courtesy photo.

Aye, there's the rub. To become a patent attorney, you have to go to law school. And it's going to cost you. "To advance in the field appreciably, a law degree is a must. Unlike grad school, however, it is difficult to get grant funding to go to law school and it is not cheap. Private schools, for example, have tuitions in the $30K range each year," Barash said. He suggests going to the best law school that you can afford, and where you can get good grades. Because unlike grad school? Your grades in law school actually count. Weird, huh? If you can't stomach the idea of getting yet another degree, you can become a patent agent instead. Here's the difference between patent lawyers and patent agents, according to Barash. "A patent attorney is someone who goes to law school (3 years) and obtains a JD after a first degree, passes a state bar exam and then sits and passes what is called the patent bar exam. In order to qualify to sit for the patent bar exam, one needs to have at least a bachelors in a science or engineering. To sit for a state bar exam (to qualify as a lawyer), one must get a JD degree. Some people want to sit for the patent bar but do not want to go to law school. If one sits for the patent bar and passes, then one becomes a patent agent. Patent agents do not have law degrees and cannot, for example, litigate patents." But without supervised training and experience, it's kind of hard to start out as a patent agent, Barash said. He suggests contacting patent lawyers around where you live and chatting them up. "I was lucky to meet some great mentors when I started," he said. Another difference between lawyers and agents is the salaries. Lawyers can make large amounts of the dollars. "Starting salaries are well north of 100K at large law firms and partners can make into seven figures at some places," Barash said. But agents make less than that. "By state law, they cannot be partners in a law firm and law firms cannot bill them out at high rates like they can attorneys," he said. So I guess if later salary's that important, you need to shell out the money for law school. The legal market is not as good of a job prospect as it used to be, Barash said. (What is?) "But patent law tends to fare better than other areas of law and pharmaceutical patent law better than other areas of patent law. Nevertheless, it is still a growth area, especially with people who have scientific skill in demand." Does Barash miss working in the lab? Nope. He said he's always been more of a 'work with brain' guy than 'work with hands' guy. But his work life is a lot of fun, he said. "Some days I work on preparing patent applications. Others I am providing legal opinions. In any event, I interact with scientists at the top of their game and I have learned a tremendous amount on a daily basis. Something new happens every day, it is extremely exciting."

Author: Leigh Krietsch Boerner

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  1. A patent attorney can also practice patent litigation, which encompasses a much broader range of legal issues than in patent prosecution and is to that extent more interesting. The life of a patent litigator is generally more stressful, however, than that of a prosecutor. If you are a technophile who appreciates having a predictable schedule, then a career in patent prosecution is probably a better fit.

  2. Also, if you have a PhD in chemistry, there are law firms that will hire you as a patent agent or technical specialist, and then help you pass the patent bar. If you end up wanting more, these law firms will also pay for your law school tuition.