Scientists interested in becoming patent attorneys, whether they wish to work in an in-house patent office in industry, at a law firm helping clients assemble patent applications, or in a national agency that grants patent rights, must have a skills portfolio that not many people possess. On its Web site, the United Kingdom's Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) asks, to become a patent attorney, do "you have to be a scientist, a lawyer and a linguist?" The answer: "Briefly, yes, though the degree of skill needed in each of these is not as great as that required in Fellows of the Royal Society, general lawyers or interpreters." That's a good way of encapsulating it. "The would-be patent attorney must have the ability to acquire, and enjoy exercising, legal skills of drafting, analysis and logical thought, and, particularly the skill to use the English language aptly and accurately, in written work. In addition, because patents are increasingly international, a knowledge of at least French and German, although not essential, is highly desirable," CIPA continues.
Careers in patent law offer good -- that is, usually interesting and well remunerated -- job opportunities. Although becoming an attorney requires additional training, long-term career prospects are often much better than, say, those of becoming a faculty member at a research-intensive institution.
The traditional way to become a patent attorney in the Western world is a several-year traineeship based at a patent law firm, complemented by courses and culminating with licensing exams. The amount of formal education -- the number of classes you need to take -- varies from place to place. There may be other ways into patent law -- traditional law school, for example -- but the best way for those with a science degree is to connect with a patent law firm and go from there.
Over the past decade, we at Science Careers have talked to scientists from many fields about how they made the transition into patent law and what their job was like. Here's what we have learned.
Careers for Scientists in the Patenting World
A cluster of important and popular non-traditional career paths for scientists involve filing, examining, and disputing patents.
In Person: A Career in Biotech Patent Law
A patent attorney and former immunologist examines his career transition and offers advice to scientists interested in a career in patent law.
A Solo Career in Patent Law
Engineer-turned-patent attorney Kate Hillis talks about starting over with her own patent law firm.
In Person: Peter Brown: Patent Attorney Pending
New Zealand Young Scientist of the Year award winner Peter Brown tells why he decided to move from the bench to the bar.
Scientist-Lawyers: Test Tubes to Briefs
Becoming a Patent Attorney in Australia
Ian Rourke describes various ways of becoming a patent attorney in his native country.
Digesting Patents: The Role of the Patent Analyst
Geeho Liu explains her duties as a patent analyst at Derwent Information.
Chemical Transformations: From Prof to Patent Law
After being denied tenured at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Paul Dietze decided to enter law school and become a patent attorney.
An Inventive Career Move
Gordon Stark, a technical assistant who, at the time this article was published, was on his way to becoming a patent agent, talks about the qualification exams he had to pass before becoming a patent professional in the United Kingdom.
Patently Obvious? Working In-House
Patent attorney Ian Hiscock tells us what he does and explains the difference between working in an in-house patent office in industry and in a patent law firm.
Sarah Thompson reflects on what made her application for a trainee patent agent position in the United Kingdom successful and offers advice to other job seekers.
Working for Europe's Intellectual Property
Mark Weaver tells us what it's like to make the big decision about what gets patented as a patent agent at the European Patent Office.
Careers in Patent Law: Striking a Balance
Former postdoc Deborah Katz discusses the ups and downs of her transition to patent law, which included going back to school to learn about law.
The Front Lines of Patent Law
Now an intellectual property lawyer in Canada, Shonagh L. McVean describes the profession she loves and how she got there.
Advice from a Patent-Law Job Seeker in the UK
Elaine Bell offers advice on how to enter a patent law career in the United Kingdom, based on her own experience.
Breaking Into Law
But there are other law-related career options than becoming a patent attorney. Our Career Doctor, for example, advised two science students interested in entering law on the different kinds of opportunities they will find in the field.