Become a Patent Agent

Put your technical skills to work

8 May 2013

With the employment picture for electrical engineers in the United States still looking dismal, as stated in our recent blog, maybe now is the time to consider becoming a patent agent. After all, not all engineers are cut out to be consultants or have the financial backing to start their own businesses.

So if you can’t get a job in your chosen field, what can you do with your technical knowledge? You can use it to become a patent agent. 

According to the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO), people with undergrad engineering degrees in such fields as aeronautics, biomedical, computer, electric, industrial, mining, nuclear, and petroleum are among those eligible to become an agent. Agents are not lawyers, but they do have to pass a patent bar exam. Their eligibility is based on technical background, not legal education. Agents can draft patent applications for other people or companies around the world and represent them in front of the USPTO. They can also work as a patent examiner for the USPTO or for a legal office.

The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in Phoenix, one of the top 30 law schools in the country, recently launched a Master’s of Legal Studies with a Patent Practice Emphasis program aimed at non-lawyers—especially those who have a technical background.

Douglas Sylvester, dean of the College of Law, believes there are great career opportunities for non-lawyer patent agents in today’s economy, especially for those with an engineering or science degree. “We’ve heard from law firms and other employers that they plan to step up hiring of patent agents,” he says. More patent agents means fewer patent lawyers.

The average salary range for a patent agent is between US$52 000 to $143 000, with a median of almost $90 000, according to the college’s Career Strategy and Professional Development Mentoring Center.

Eric Menkhus, director of new program development for the college and a professor with the school, asked The Institute to get the word out about this new program. I asked: Why target IEEE members?

“The reason why I was looking at technical/engineering groups is that these are the ones most likely to have members who are eligible to sit for the patent bar exam,” he told me. “It is the law school’s belief that most engineers and scientists aren’t aware that this is a career option for them.”

“Also, I’m an engineer. I earned a bachelor’s in industrial engineering from ASU in 1996,” he continues. “I also attended IEEE meetings and events as an undergrad. When I was looking through the engineering student organizations, ASU’s IEEE student chapter was one of the most prominent. Having been involved as a student with IEEE, knowing we still have an undergrad chapter, and teaching engineering students as part of my program at the law school, I understood that IEEE is one of the most well-known, well-organized, and most respected technical and engineering groups around.”

What is the Master of Legal Studies, Patent Practice program all about? It provides an understanding of U.S. law, the legal process and the nuances of patent and other intellectual property law; covers the technology-licensing and commercialization process; and teaches you how to draft patents and claims and represent clients. To register, you need to pay an application fee and submit a personal statement, two letters of recommendation, a résumé, and your academic transcripts. The deadline to apply for the fall 2013 semester is 30 July. The tuition is $38 000, which covers 14 credit hours in the fall, 11 credit hours in the spring, and 5 credit hours for a summer session. If you’d like to know more about the program, check out webinars being held on 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, and 18 May.

Of course you don’t have to hold this master’s to take the USPTO exam for agents. You just have to show proof of eligibility, pay fees, and once certified, take the exam within 90 days. The exam is computer based and offered just about every day of the week. You’ll get your unofficial results the same day you take the exam, and the official results will arrive in the mail a few days later. The exam is based on the Manual of Patent Examining Procedures. Commercial prep courses are also available to help you pass. And if you don’t pass the exam the first time, you can try, try again.

If you're currently an engineer who is working as a patent agent, please share your experience with us.

Image: USPTO

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