Should I do patent law?
March 21, 2011 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Would you advise a lawyer with 22 undergraduate physics credits to complete the 2-3 additional physics classes necessary to qualify for the patent bar? Will I be employable as a patent attorney in Chicago with the minimum technical background or do I need an additional degree (or degrees)? Is it fun?

I have an undergraduate degree in General Studies, but I was a physics major for a couple of years. I would qualify for the patent bar with a couple more classes.

I'm a 2007 JD from a top-25 law school. I was in the top half of my class. I took a few IP classes but ultimately decided to pursue public interest work. I had a lot of fun doing good for a few years, and I got some good litigation experience, but I did not make any money.

I would like to work with reasonable and competent colleagues. I would like to earn about $60K. There don't seem to be a lot of job openings now, and I'm not good at selling myself. I wonder if I would be more marketable as a patent attorney?

Anyway, I'm working part-time now and taking one physics class for fun. It is a nice change of pace and I miss being around scientists. I am debt-free and the cost of education is not an issue.

Would it make sense for me to take the patent bar with just the minimum number of physics credits? Do I need to complete a physics degree (or even an EE degree)?

I know most patent attorneys go to law school after getting a technical degree. Will the fact that I got my JD first be a problem?

Is patent prosecution and/or litigation enjoyable? Is this a better plan than, say, working at a small plaintiffs' personal injury firm?
posted by steinwald to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know this isn't really too helpful, but my father was a patent attorney in Chicago for 40 years and he absolutely loved it. Used to bring home enormous exploded view blueprints of a part of a machine and tell us about how exciting it was! (I just couldn't see it, personally!) It's also a very lucrative field.
posted by la petite marie at 3:00 PM on March 21, 2011

Just as general academic advice: it's always worth the 3 extra credits to complete a surplus degree. You may never use it, but it improves your prospects in general.
posted by clarknova at 3:00 PM on March 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

I wonder if I would be more marketable as a patent attorney?

Absolutely. You will have a big competitive advantage as a patent attorney over others. One of my friends in IP law now wants to go back to school to get a EE degree specifically so she can be admitted to the patent bar. Tech companies looking for in-counsel lawyers absolutely want attorneys admitted to the patent bar with science backgrounds.

In fact, just about the only people I'd advise going to law school, other than those who get into top programs or get some kind of partial or full tuition scholarship, would be people planning on being patent attorneys.
posted by deanc at 3:05 PM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm biased, because I'm a physics professor. But I imagine an employer who needs to hire someone with quantitative chops, who isn't afraid of numbers and equations and knows how to handle them. The employer has two resumes in front of him: One candidate has a bachelor's in general studies and a J.D. The other has a bachelor's in physics and a J.D. Which candidate is he going to call?

In contrast, I have trouble concocting a situation in which the guy/gal with the General Studies degree gets called before the one with the Physics degree.
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:05 PM on March 21, 2011

Yes - definitely finish your degree!
posted by zia at 3:27 PM on March 21, 2011

God, do it while you can. Once you're in the world, tied up in your life, it's even harder to do. I was one class away from a physics minor by never got around to it. At the very least, I'd like to be able to put "physics minor" on my resume as an honest point of pride.
posted by notsnot at 3:58 PM on March 21, 2011

Patent lawyers are more in demand than other lawyers because of their rare technical backgrounds. Taking the patent bar without getting a technical degree would be something, I guess, but not a lot -- you'd be clearly a cut below a PhD or MS, or even someone with a BS who went on to work as an engineer for five years.

This could also help you break into IP litigation, although again, returns are likely to be limited. Would that be more enjoyable than plaintiff-side personal injury litigation? It's a noteworthy difference. What did you like and dislike about the work you were doing before?
posted by J. Wilson at 5:34 PM on March 21, 2011

Yes, do it! I wish so much that I had a science background so I could do patent. The people in law school who want to do patent are able to get jobs (that pay well, too) easily without even having to make awesome grades like us regular law peeps, so I'd definitely do it if I were you.
posted by elpea at 5:42 PM on March 21, 2011

I always thought of patent prosecution and litigation as the only possibilities for patent law work, and neither one appealed to me at the time. A friend of mine does patent licensing and contract work instead, which she says she enjoys much more. So that's another option, although I have no idea how many jobs doing that are available (she is an associate at an Am Law 25 firm).
posted by grouse at 6:37 PM on March 21, 2011

Is this a better plan than, say, working at a small plaintiffs' personal injury firm?

The job market for patent attorneys remains decent despite the crappy economy. Completing the course work and passing the patent bar should not be large hurdles. The real question is how marketable will you be without the full technical pedigree. Law firms can be snooty and look for marketable additions to their resume like Harvard trained lawyers and biotech patent attorneys with Ph.D.s That doesn't mean no opportunity for you, just a bit harder path. Beyond marketing you to clients a technical degree is quite helpful in drafting patents, but less important for litigating (and Patent Bar admission is legally required only for transacting business with the patent office). If you are interested it might pay to seek an informational interview with a patent attorney to see if you would want to do what they do, someone local who graduated from the same law school as you and with a similar number of years of experience would be the easiest to get an interview with.
posted by caddis at 9:28 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My wife looked into patent law a couple months ago. The conclusion she arrived at was that being a patent attorney required long hours, but paid reasonably well whereas being a patent examiner allowed you to work 9-5 and still paid pretty well.
posted by electroboy at 7:01 AM on March 22, 2011

A colleague at a former firm was a history major who had enough science/tech classes to sit for the patent bar, which she did and now does patent prosecution. It's possible.
posted by exogenous at 7:48 AM on March 22, 2011

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