James Drake Talks About Registration Numbers and Patent Attorney Career Insights

How Did You Enter the Field of Patent Law?

I have been a patent attorney since 1990. I got into the field in quite an unusual fashion. When I graduated from high school, I enrolled in a six year BS/MD program, but that stalled when I had to operate on live animals in physiology lab.

Possessed of a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology but no immediate job prospects, I decided to enroll in law school. Midway through my second of three years in law school (this was in Cleveland, Ohio), I saw an advertisement on the job board for a law clerk. The prerequisite for the position was a B.S. degree in science. It was also paying significantly more than most other law clerk jobs available at the time.

It turned out that the job was with the Patent and Licensing Department of BP America, which had recently purchased Sohio. The reason a B.S. degree in science was necessary was because there is a separate certification that you must earn above and beyond the state bar examination in order to call yourself a patent attorney. Most other areas of law allow you to begin practicing as soon as you graduate and pass the bar exam. As a result, this is a field with a limited number of practitioners.

My registration number is 34,584, which was assigned to me in 1990. At the time, it was rare to find a practitioner who was either active or alive with a number under 20,000. This is because the numbers have been handed out consecutively since 1910.

Currently, the registration numbers are in the 75,000-80,000 range. This big jump is primarily a result of higher pass rates on the patent bar exam. Nonetheless, it is still a limited field of practice and practitioners who have been around as long as I have tend to run into colleagues we have met previously more often than not. As an example, the attorney who hired me for the BP America job hired me again six years ago for a company that was spun off from BP.

Insights on Working as a Patent Attorney

The job is very interesting because you are typically working with new technology that no one has seen before. Job advancement varies depending on whether you are an in-house or outside counsel.

In private firms, the usual 7-10 year period of being an associate attorney is followed by becoming an equity partner in the firm if you can generate a sufficient amount of business. In corporations, advancement is more haphazard, as few corporate law departments are sufficiently large to allow for a typical progression. Despite this, patent attorneys may be found at all levels of a corporate structure.

In the mid-90s, I worked for a chemical company where the CEO and the VP of Human Resources were both patent attorneys, although no longer practicing. Overall, pay for patent attorneys is at the high end of the compensation scale for attorneys, primarily because of the specialized skills of practitioners.

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