The Patent Bar as a Gateway to a Career as a Patent Agent

On Friday, the MSL students had the chance to hear from three patent agents to discuss the patent bar, their career, and the professional opportunities in patent law. The panelists were Natalie Kaplan (Senior Patent Agent at the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich), Amy Garber (MSL graduate and Chief IP Officer at Hazel Technologies), and John White (Director of Patent Professional Development). Here are some of the questions they answered for the group:

Why become a patent agent?

Amy was attracted to the field because it allowed her to meld science into a legal career. Natalie realized that she had writing skills that many engineers lacked and that she could apply them as a patent agent. It also gave her the chance to be exposed to a wide breadth of mechanical engineering instead of having a narrow area of expertise. John highlighted that more than half a million patent applications are filed in the US each year and it’s a major part of the innovation economy in the country. On a personal level, he was drawn to the fact that the federal government provided financial assistance for patent examiners to go to law school, which is what prompted him to pass the bar.

What’s the difference between patent agent and attorney?

Natalie pointed out that attorneys look at being owners of firms, which means building a client base and developing those relationships. As an agent, there’s no pressure to do that. “I’m not judged by the dollar amount that I bring in,” she pointed out. Because of that, she can focus on patent prosecution. John mentioned that the major difference comes down to legal training. Law firms usually hire an agent with the idea that they’ll cost less, but over time their salaries catch-up to those of patent attorneys. It’s not an under-compensated career.

What does the career path look like?

Natalie’s firm actively recruits engineers to her department and they offer financial assistance to any of them that DO want to become lawyers. It’s easier to train engineers or science professionals than it is to find lawyers with a science background.

Amy took the exam straight out of college and was hired in her first job at General Electric because she had the credential, despite her lack of professional experience. Her initial compensation was low, but she received crucial training and the General Electric name behind it. Getting that training was most important step of her career.

John highlighted that the test is necessary to enter the field, but it doesn’t teach you how to be an agent. It’s a credential that allows you to take the first step.

How can I best prepare for the test?

John said that taking a course was their best bet. You can get fooled into thinking it’ll be easy because it’s an open book exam, but the pass rate is about 45%. Take it seriously and prepare.  Set aside 150-175 hours to study.

Any tips for international students?

Kettil Cedercreutz, the MSL program’s Director of External Outreach and Career Advancement, reminded international students interested in a patent career that engineering multinational companies are more likely to sponsor. Amy echoed his sentiment, suggesting that international students look into corporations, instead of law firms. Law firms tend to work in partnerships with other firms in foreign jurisdiction than have global locations. Corporations have offices in a wide variety of locations and some may be in the student’s home country. Natalie also mentioned that most research universities have a tech transfer office that hires patent agents. Finally, John said that the use of language in patent applications is very precise and international students have to make sure they have an excellent handle of the English language, On the other hand, patents come from all over. Translating cases is vital and there are firms that desperately need bilingual candidates to deal with patent applications in other languages.

Interested in a career in patents? Check out our tips for passing the exam and our blog post on other IP careers


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One thought on “The Patent Bar as a Gateway to a Career as a Patent Agent

  1. Hi,
    I am an international student currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Pharmacy. I am currently looking for opportunities in patent law. As I was searching, I come across your blog and found to be informative. I do have a few questions regarding the career in this field. Could you please answer them?
    1. Is it possible for a foreign student to become a patent agent in the US( without having a permanent residence?
    2. I do not really understand the term “limited recognition” mentioned by USPTO on their website. Does it mean we can not be hired by a company even if we pass the patent bar?

    I really appreciate your help.


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