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Help me understand Patent Law

DachshundDachshund Registered User regular
edited November 2010 in Help / Advice Forum
I am interested in possibly pursuing a career in patent law. Is there anyone here who can give insight into the process? Time committment, cost committment, what it's like once you got that fancy degree, how the schooling compares to hard sciences, answers to important questions that I haven't thought of?

I already have a master's in mechanical engineering and a couple of years experience as a field engineer in power services. In the past I really wanted to finish my professional engineering license, having already passed the fundamentals exam, but in time the personal value of that endeavor seems to have attenuated a bit; still interested, but also suffering from grass is greener (or more interesting) mentality.

This may be a passing fancy, but I want a change of pace (maybe I just need a desk job, I used to work 14 hours, 7 days, on my feet running around a power plant). Any insight would be appreciated!

Dachshund on


  • HlubockyHlubocky Registered User regular
    edited November 2010
    The legal market in general is in the toilet right now, so if you do decide to pursue this, unless you know you will be the best person in your class, you will want to get into a top 10 law school if possible. With fewer jobs available, the people that went to the best schools are taking jobs that people that went to lesser schools would usually take, and this goes all the way down, with many people barely able to get by, much less pay for their expensive degree.

    It sounds like your previous experience has you covered for the technical requirement to practicing IP law (I believe the Bar requires you to have a science/engineering degree), and your 7 days a week, 14 hours a day work ethic will prepare you well should you decide to try and get a job at a workhorse firm.

    Hlubocky on
  • A BearA Bear Registered User regular
    edited November 2010
    Obligatory video.

    Do not go to law school--the legal economy is in shambles.

    Do not go to law school--the work will make you look back on your 14-hour days wistfully.

    Do not go to law school--law school is full of future lawyers.

    Still not discouraged enough yet? Then maybe you are cut out for law school. Patent law is probably one of the best fields to be looking into, because the patent bar inherently limits how many patent lawyers there are, so there is still some demand for them. Have you taken the LSAT? Try some full practice tests and see what your score looks like. Is your LSAT score from practicing generally less than 160? I'd think about keeping your old job.

    If you still want to go to law school, and you think your can get a good LSAT score, pay to sit for the test, knock the LSAT out of the park, and then start paying to apply for law schools. Look at the US News rankings and see what schools in the top 50 or so you might want to spend three years in. Get into some good schools (preferably one with a substantial scholarship, or a well-ranked state school) and start a process of three hellacious years.

    Almost everyone in law school seems to have a degree in social sciences, so your hard science background might make you stand out. I think we have 1 computer science guy, 2-3 engineers, and maybe 4-5 biology or chem majors in my class of 160 or so. Have you ever been taught through the socratic method? It's still alive and well in most law schools, albeit not as bad as The Paperchase (or maybe even Legally Blonde) might make it out to be. Thanks to your hard science background, you might not need to really get to the top of your class in law school, but you will still need to do pretty well. Patent places like to see your working background too, so if you have good things there, it can alleviate some less than stellar grades.

    Also, check out some law school forums--like Top Law Schools for some further perspective. I've got a lot more to say if you want to PM me, but I'm already running late for my first class of the day.

    A Bear on
  • DrFrylockDrFrylock Registered User regular
    edited November 2010
    I had the occasion to work for a team of some of the best patent litigators in the country for about two or three years. Patent litigation is different than patent law; the litigators are the ones going to court. The patent lawyers mostly spent their time arguing with the patent office. However, in this firm the litigators were all required to pass the patent bar anyway, just in case.

    I don't have much insight into being a patent lawyer, but I do have some into being a patent litigator. This is not a job you can do with a "passing fancy." To do that job right, you need to put it first in your life, forever. The partners worked just as hard as the associates. Being really good attorneys, yes, they made money. This allowed them to have nice cars they didn't have time to drive, nice houses they never saw, and nice families that they saw on a schedule.

    The video above is sarcastic, but not that sarcastic. You will go into massive debt for law school. Not all attorneys make a lot of money. These guys did because they were at a top firm. I asked them how you get a job at a top firm, and they said that they would not even interview anyone who had not gone to a top 10/15 school and graduated well in their class. If I had gone to law school where I went to engineering school, I would not have even been let in the door.

    The work is mentally rigorous, and often interesting. You will get to learn about all different scientific and engineering domains. However, there is remarkable tedium. While I have never spent Thanksgiving reviewing 1.2 million pages of billing records in a warehouse in Topeka, I have spent a week reading, categorizing, and cataloging 20 full file boxes of paper.

    One thing that made me realize I did not want to be a lawyer is that, unlike engineering, it is directly and fundamentally adversarial. In engineering, if I have an awesome day, it does not mean somebody else had to have a miserable day. In litigation, that is the nature of the beast. Another thing that was tough is that everything is punctuated by critical decision points like trials and hearings. You must prepare for 100 contingencies in case 2 of them occur. You can spend weeks of tedious effort that never sees the light of day. That can be disheartening.

    On the flip side, some people love it. I once heard someone say that the difference between a pro athlete and a schlub was that, in the clutch, the schlub says "please don't let him hit the ball at me" and the pro says "please hit it right here." These guys were very much like that. They did not mind the fight, and got fired up about it.

    A final thought is on the state of the patent system itself. Having seen it from deep on the inside, there are some things wrong with it that they need to fix. These problems sort of put me off on the whole experience. I might have some trouble doing it again unless I was convinced the circumstances warranted it. As an attorney, you will have less freedom to pick and choose.

    Good luck. If you have more questions just PM or post them.

    DrFrylock on
  • Mr BlondeMr Blonde Registered User regular
    edited November 2010
    DrFrylock wrote: »
    I don't have much insight into being a patent lawyer, but I do have some into being a patent litigator. This is not a job you can do with a "passing fancy." To do that job right, you need to put it first in your life, forever. The partners worked just as hard as the associates. Being really good attorneys, yes, they made money. This allowed them to have nice cars they didn't have time to drive, nice houses they never saw, and nice families that they saw on a schedule.

    I work in an estate planning office that used to be across from Knobbe Marten Olson & Bear, a patent law office. I liked to chat with an attorney that worked there, and one day he was really ill (fever, non-stop coughing, etc.) I said, "hey, why aren't you at home?" "I haven't been able to take a sick day in four years."

    As a paralegal, I don't make 1/4 of what he makes, but I just got back from a 9 day trip in Italy. Just depends on what your priorities are.

    Mr Blonde on
  • DoctorArchDoctorArch Curmudgeon Registered User regular
    edited November 2010
    I'm in law school right now and I know the market is bad. That said, every single lawyer I have talked to across a variety of fields including intellectual property has told me that passing the patent bar gives you more than a leg up compared to other people.

    Me: "I'm going to law school."

    Lawyers: "Good luck, you know the market right now is terrible, right?"

    Me: "Yes, that's why I thought I would take the patent bar to give me a sort of leg up."

    Lawyers: "Oh ok, you'll be fine. Seriously."

    DoctorArch on
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  • kaliyamakaliyama Left to find less-moderated fora Registered User regular
    edited November 2010

    is a good starting point. Dr. Frylock points out that patent law is the practice of patent prosecution - i.e. writing and filing patents with the PTO and getting it through that process - which is staid, solitary work. You need a technical background to interface with the engineers and technical people who made the product or process. Patent litigation is suing over patent infringement, which will usually implicate technical issues but you have experts/consultants to do the heavy lifting on that.

    Patent prosecution work is pretty routine. It's not really high up on the value chain. You can expect downward pressure on salaries and jobs doing prosecution as more of it can be outsourced and done on the cheap. Patent litigation requires no special skills and your ME won't help you, though some picky places will insist on you having a science background anyway. Those places will also care what school you went to - which can be a problem for hard science people, because law schools don't weight science major GPAs any differently than non-science GPAs, which means you'll be hard pressed to go to as good a school.

    Historically this means science-credentialed recruiting happens at a broader swath of schools than normal firm recruiting. Here are some firm websites to get a sense of attorney backgrounds:,,

    Given that the legal market is still atrocious, i'd be hesitant to go into it, especially with a non-particularized ME degree - check out that abovethelaw post's comment section for more expert commentary. For example, san diego's patent market realyl wants you to have a life sciences MS, or a PhD if possible. The more siloed and specialized our technological development gets the more siloed our lawyers get.

    kaliyama on
  • SimpsoniaSimpsonia Registered User regular
    edited November 2010
    I thought about taking the patent bar before I started my own practice, and then reconsidered. Patent prosecution is incredibly boring and menial work, however it is probably the most stable in terms of your hours worked in the legal field. You have a masters which is good, most decent patent firms won't even hire attorneys who don't have masters or phd's nowadays. However the downside is ME attorneys are starting to become a dime a dozen, most firms are looking fore bioengineers, CE's, and EE's. Most attorneys who say that if you take the patent bar you'll be fine are attorneys who don't practice in the patent field, and don't really know what it's like.

    Honestly don't go to law school. And definitely don't go to law school unless you plan on becoming a jaded sonofabitch.

    I'll close with don't go to law school unless you love being miserable.

    Simpsonia on
  • oldsakoldsak Registered User regular
    edited November 2010
    You don't need to be a lawyer to take the Patent Bar. A non-lawyer who passes the patent bar and practices patent prosecution is called a patent agent.

    If you decide it's something you really want to pursue. I'd suggest studying for and taking the Patent Bar and getting work as a patent agent first. You will be doing a lot of the same stuff you would be doing as a patent lawyer, so it's a way to get an idea of what it entails before investing time and money in law school.

    oldsak on
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