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As long as there are people with good ideas, there will be a need for patent professionals. And with the recent unveiling of the human genome sequence--to say nothing of the new drugs that are being tested every day--those working in the patent field are busier than ever. "Work just finds us!" exclaims Frederick Gibb, senior partner at McGinn and Gibb, a Washington, D.C., area firm that specializes in electrical patents.

So, what does this mean for the scientist looking to dive into a career in patent law?

When asked about the general outlook for hiring in patent law, all of the "associates" (junior lawyers in a firm) and "partners" (senior lawyers in a firm) interviewed by Next Wave for this feature gave upbeat answers. "We would hire people today!" says Terry Morgan, partner at Williams, Morgan, and Amerson in Houston. And according to E. Robin Plumer, shareholder at Wolf, Greenfield, and Sacks in Boston and leader of the firm's Biotechnology Practice Group, "Across the board, [the job market] is very, very good."

But the experts are quick to point out that the answer for any particular job seeker depends on several factors: What area of science is your specialty? Do you have a Ph.D. or postdoctoral experience? Are you restricting your job search to a certain geographical area? What other skills can you bring to the table? As with any job search, you need to reflect on your needs and wants, as well as the needs and wants of your prospective employer.

Patent Law in the UK

Kristina Cornish, a partner at patent attorney firm Kilburn & Strode in London, says of patent law in the UK, "In the last 10 years, the profession has changed because UK industry, and industry across the world, has increasingly realised the importance of intellectual property." There's also been a lot of encouragement from government for scientists to think about commercialising their research, which means that patent professionals are quite busy and "it's a good profession to be in at the moment." The big growth areas for patent protection are IT, computer software, telecomms, and biotech. In terms of her own field of biotechnology, important areas are molecular modelling and bioinformatics, rather than just basic products. Growth areas for hiring are biotechnology and IT, but there's no slowdown in traditional areas like mechanical engineering and chemistry.

--Kirstie Urquhart

Not All Fields Are Created Equal

Sure, much of the buzz these days is about patenting genes and enforcing patents on life-saving drugs in developing countries. But don't be discouraged if you aren't a card-carrying molecular biologist or pharmacologist. Patent protection can also be sought for a new way to culture cells (a "method") or for a novel electrophoresis apparatus (a "machine").

And outside of the biological/bioengineering arenas, law firms need people with expertise in electronics, chemical processes, and computer software. Although demand in the chemical area has always been small compared to that in other areas, it is expanding, Gibb says. But he also points out that engineers and scientists thinking about getting into the patent game should recognize that the livelihoods of patent professionals are closely tied to the fates of the industries they serve. For example, the big Internet bust of the past year has definitely had a negative effect on the electrical patent prosecution business. Nevertheless, Gibb explains that because the electrical was "extremely hot" until the technology market slowed down, the electrical patent field is still good, although not quite as good as in the glory days of the dot-coms in the late 1990s.

Ph.D.: Necessary?

Technically, a Ph.D. degree is not required to practice patent law before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), but you do need at least a bachelor's degree in a science or engineering discipline to sit for the patent bar exam. Passing the patent bar exam, officially known as the Registration Exam, qualifies you to communicate directly with the Patent Office on your client's behalf.

Although an undergraduate degree in science or engineering may be enough of a technical background in the eyes of the USPTO, Paul Rauch, an associate at Brinks, Hofer, Gilison, and Lione in Chicago, says that "in the biotechnology area, an advanced degree, or equivalent experience, is often necessary." He adds, "Advanced degrees, especially a master's degree in an engineering discipline, or a Ph.D. in chemistry, physics, or a biological field, can be a significant advantage." Echoing that sentiment, Plumer says that her biotechnology group is the only one in the firm that is "heavily into Ph.D.s," and she goes on to say that when it comes to hiring patent professionals, she looks for the applicants' "experience level in the science." Jorge Goldstein, founding partner and a managing director of Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein, and Fox in Washington, D.C., and head of the firm's biotech practice, says that lawyers who apply to his firm must have legal expertise in the biotech area, but not necessarily a Ph.D. degree. He goes on to say, however, that his firm only hires people with Ph.D.s for technical specialist positions. (For more on technical specialists, read this.)

Patent Law in Germany

Patent law is currently a booming field in Europe, with Munich--home to both the European Patent Office (EPO) and the German Patent and Trademark Office (GPTO)--serving as the continent's "patent capital." As Next Wave reported in May, the EPO announced that it has hundreds of open positions to fill (see Next Wave article), and now the GPTO is also looking to hire 180 patent examiners over the next 3 years. Uwe Ausfelder, patent examiner with the GPTO, reports about his work in Next Wave's accompanying feature on patent law.

--Eick von Ruschkowski

Geography

There is a definite geographical factor at work in the patent field. In the U.S., job seekers generally should look toward major cities on the East and West coasts for the bulk of the opportunities in patent law: New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Los Angeles are a few "hot spots."

But beware of cities that are home to several prestigious research institutions that are churning out the Ph.D.s. Plumer's Boston law firm, which is close to powerhouses like Harvard, MIT, and Yale, is often bombarded with resumes from Ph.D.s. She says that biotech in the Boston area is "highly competitive" and points out that the job market is indeed "region-dependent."

On the other hand, you have to be where the business is and research institutions are potential clients, as are companies. Universities and companies themselves are prime settings for patent job opportunities. Instead of (or in addition to) contracting with nearby law firms, schools and companies often employ patent professionals in-house to handle patent prosecution and licensing agreements. Grant Reed, formerly an associate with a Washington, D.C., firm, was recently in the job market himself, looking for a position in an industrial setting. He was open to jobs anywhere in the country, and he reports that there is no dearth of good jobs for patent professionals. Reed is now working as a patent attorney at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis and reports that he is enjoying his new job, which affords him much more contact with inventors (the scientists) than when he worked for a law firm.

Standing Out From the Crowd: Other Skills

Regardless of the area of patent law you wish to pursue, there are a few ways you can distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool:

  • Communication Skills

    Patent professionals are constantly drafting patent applications, defending their client's claims to the Patent Office, and consulting with inventors. Morgan says that applicants who have good writing skills are much sought after by his firm. He also says there is a limited pool of people who have both science expertise and writing skills--and that his firm is looking for them!

  • Teamwork

    Show employers that you are a team player. Plumer says she looks for applicants who will "play well with others." In any setting, patent lawyers and agents must work with a whole team of people, including secretaries, inventors (the scientists), and business types. "We have people who compete with themselves, not with others," says Plumer.

  • Interdisciplinary Science Training

    Plumer's firm looks for applicants who can bring an interesting blend of skills. Recent hires at her firm have included a scientist with expertise in both chemistry and pharmacology, as well as a scientist who specialized in computer science and bioinformatics. Interdisciplinary training will not only add to your scientific knowledge base, but it will also demonstrate that you can easily pick up and apply new knowledge. The message is clear--if you decide to gain additional scientific experience, say as a postdoc, you'd be well advised to seek training in an area different from your current field.

  • Flexibility

    Patent lawyers and agents must be flexible and able to understand a wide variety of technologies. Goldstein looks for "quick studies" when hiring patent professionals. He wants to know that he can assign a case based on a genetics technology to an immunologist, for example.

No Easy Answers

As with many things in life, there are no simple answers when it comes to landing your dream job in patent law. There are many things to consider, from where you want to live and work to what skills you can offer to your employer. And if patent law is your calling, you will even have to decide if you want to go to law school or if you'd rather dive right in as a patent agent or technical specialist. Whatever you settle on, the future is bright for patent professionals!