The Definitive Guide

You can start a career in patent law as a patent agent or patent attorney once you pass the patent bar exam.

Learn more about patent law and a career in this field within this guide.

We also cover some frequently asked questions on the career.

Get ready to have all your questions answered on this exciting career field! Select from the contents below or just continue scrolling through this guide.


Section 1

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different idea as to when the history of patents and patent law began. As for here in the United  States, the first Patent Act of Congress was passed on April 10, 1790.

The first patent was granted soon after on July 31, 1790, to Samuel Hopkins for a method of producing potash (potassium carbonate), an essential ingredient used in making soap, glass, and gunpowder.

A lot has changed since 1790. Patent law as an industry has grown and adapted and the need for specialized patent practitioners has emerged. New technologies like biotechnology and advances in engineering have only added to the complexity of patent laws and rules.

In fact, there is an entire Manual written concerning just the rules and regulations of patent law, called the Manual of Patent Examining Procedures (or MPEP) that is a few thousand pages in length.

Is there any wonder why patent law has become a full-blown career for many?


Section 2

For starters, there are two roads to travel; you can either become a patent agent or a patent attorney. Both these individuals must have the proper background in science or engineering (we’ll discuss this later on), and both must take the exam known as the Patent Bar exam.

The difference between the two is the attorney has also attended law school, passed the state bars, etc … and is licensed to practice law.

The patent agent does not have this designation, but even without it, they can still practice law before the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office). The main difference is that they can only practice patent law.

Even without law school, you can definitely enter this prestigious legal field; many do so every year.

Whether you decide to become a patent agent or attorney, you will help inventors gain patents on their inventions. Inventors may be in the form of corporations, small businesses, scientists, or even the lone inventor working from his or her garage.

Regardless of who they are, you will advise inventors as to whether or not their invention is patentable by performing a patent search (or hiring someone to do it). If it is, as a patent agent or patent attorney, you will draft a patent application for them.

A patent application primarily consists of information about the invention. For instance … What is it? How does it work?

There are also drawings and claims. To give you a very general description of the claims, they define exactly what the inventor “claims” he or she has invented.

As a patent agent or attorney, you must rely on your technical expertise to draft the patent application. That means you will need to understand the invention and communicate it to others within the patent application.

Once it’s completed, the application must be sent to the USPTO, where it is examined by a patent examiner. Examiners determine whether or not the invention described in the application will become a patent.

Once the examination process has begun, you will correspond with the examiner and the inventor and make adjustments to the application to the best of your abilities. Eventually, the examiner will either allow the application to patent or reject it.

So to briefly summarize, a career as a patent agent or attorney will involve a great deal of writing and correspondence between you, the inventor, and the Patent and Trademark Office.

Patent Law is the perfect field for many creative and talented individuals since it requires many different qualities to be successful.


Section 3

Aside from the right degree and the willingness to pass the patent bar exam, what does it take to become a patent agent or attorney?

For starters, there is definitely a people-oriented side to patent law since patent agents and attorneys work so closely with inventors.  Remember, their hopes and dreams will be riding on the invention and you will need to be there to help them protect it.

Patent agents and attorneys must also have excellent writing skills. Drafting a quality patent application is tedious work that requires the best in written communication.

In addition, a strong background in either science or technology is a must. You must be capable of understanding exactly what has been invented in order to write a patent application.

Lastly, as a patent agent or attorney, you should possess a thirst for never-ending knowledge.

You will be right on the cutting edge of research and development and will always be exposed to new and exciting discoveries. We offer an online Patent Practitioner Career Assessment where you can find out more about the ideal skills and traits for this career.


Section 4

You’ll need to take the Patent Bar exam to become a registered patent practitioner (either patent agent or patent attorney). You have to qualify in order to take the exam so if you qualify, then you’ve already got the background to become a patent agent.  If you have a law degree and are in good standing then by passing the Patent Bar you will become a registered patent attorney.

Either way, once you’ve passed the exam and become a registered patent agent or patent attorney, you can write and prosecute patent applications before the USPTO.  Essentially this means you can help inventors (whether individuals or corporations) protect their inventions through a patent.

Another point to make is that even if you don’t practice patent law, passing the patent bar exam can aid you in your career. If you’re currently working as an engineer, gaining a patent agent designation will only help your resume stand out. So by passing this exam, you may be able to find more work as a scientist or engineer and to find it faster.

In addition, passing the patent bar exam may help you in your current position. We have many clients who pass the patent bar exam and then gain a substantial promotion.

As an engineer or a scientist, you’re often working on a project that may eventually be patented by your company. If you know the ropes of the patent process, you can play an even more integral role in helping your company achieve its goals.

Gaining the designation as a patent agent can help you stand apart from your colleagues. You’ll have the skills to understand existing patents and to help coordinate efforts to work with a legal team when it comes time to apply for the patent application, as well as many other activities.

So passing the patent bar exam can have far-reaching advantages for you even if you don’t plan on giving up your current career path as a scientist or engineer. And the nice thing is you don’t have to go back to school and spend thousands of dollars on tuition to open the door to this exciting and lucrative profession.

All you have to do is pass a single test.

If you’re an engineer or scientist and you meet the requirements to take the patent bar exam, it can be well worth your time and effort to prepare for and pass this exam.  If you plan to enter the field of patent law head-on by becoming a patent attorney, or you have plans to gain a position as a patent agent, then passing the patent bar exam is inevitable.

You’ll want to pass it as soon as you can so you’ll be eligible for the best positions, which are usually in law firms or corporate offices.


Section 5

What is the Value in Taking and Passing the Patent Bar?

You cannot practice patent law until you’ve passed the patent bar. That means you cannot write a patent application or prosecute one before the USPTO without the credentials.

Employers assume that if you’ve passed the patent bar then you know enough about the basics of patent law to start working with a mentor.  You will not be expected to know how to do everything without any experience. This is why it’s typically harder to get that first job as a patent agent or patent attorney than any other (which goes the same for most first jobs).

Once you have a few years’ experience, gaining subsequent jobs typically becomes easier.

What Special Skills Do You Need to Become a Patent Agent or Patent Attorney?

You need to take and pass the Patent Bar exam and you need the required qualifications in order to become a patent agent or attorney.

How Easy is it to Get a Job as a Patent Practitioner?

Your background will be the primary factor in determining how easy or difficult it is for you to get a job. For example, if you have a  Master’s or a Ph.D. in biochemistry, you worked in a research laboratory for a few years, you’ve published scientific papers in the field, and you’ve passed the patent bar then you will be a prime candidate for a job as a patent agent helping to write and prosecute biochemical based patent applications.

This is compared to someone with a Bachelor’s in Biology with no work experience who has also passed the patent bar. That experience is crucial, especially in the science pathway.

In contrast, mechanical engineers frequently get hired at the Bachelor’s level and with little to no experience.  Advanced engineering degrees are not typically a necessity.

So your education and experience level will vary in individual circumstances. Just remember, if you really want to start this career, you can choose to put in the work and find a way to reach your goal.

Does Passing the Patent Bar Help with a Job Search?

Definitely. Most people pass the patent bar, then look for a job.  It’s not legal to write and/or prosecute patents without this credential so most employers are not going to want to hire anyone without it.

Does the Type of Course You Took to Prepare for the Patent Bar Matter?

It would be rare for a potential employer to ask you what course you used to pass the Patent Bar. There are absolutely ZERO reasons to go with a higher price course based on job prospects later on.

Potential employers are going to want to know your technical background. They will want to know the exact degree(s) you possess, where you went to school, accomplishments (publications, etc …), whether you have a law degree, what type of law specialty you have (like IP law), and your experience (if any) in the field. Your experience includes your past jobs as an engineer or scientist as well as any work experience you may have within the field of patent law.

Potential employers are not likely to even care or ask you whether you went to a live Patent Bar review course, if you took an online course, or if you just read and studied the MPEP on your own.   It’s a matter of whether or not you passed the Patent Bar.

In addition, they should not ask you how many tries it took for you to pass. The test is merely pass or fail. Once you’ve passed the exam the details of it are not very interesting to most. It’s just a hurdle to your entry into this field.

What Will You Get Paid and How Much Will You Have to Work?

There’s a lot of variety in the salary ranges for patent agents and patent attorneys.  The typical patent agent or attorney probably works around 40 – 50 hours a week, some less, others more, and fits within a pretty wide salary range.

As a patent agent, you could expect to earn between $54,000 on the low end and as much as $140,000 per year on the high end. The lower end of pay for a typical patent attorney is about $74,000 and the higher end is over $200,000 a year.

Can You Start Off Working Independently?

It’s best if you start out working somewhere with a mentor who can show you the ropes. It may take you a few years to understand everything well enough to be proficient at it. From there, you can open your own agency or firm if you choose to do so.

What is a Typical Day Like for a Patent Practitioner?

As a patent agent or attorney, you’ll likely have a variety of tasks each day. The start of a patent application will usually be to interview the inventors so you understand what they’ve invented. You will then need to review previous inventions in the field to get a feel for what’s already out there.

From there, you will draft the patent application. The application includes the background and summary of the invention, a description of the drawings, and the claims.  As you can see, there’s a fair amount of writing involved with working as a patent practitioner.

Once the application is written and sent out to the USPTO,  you’ll likely receive correspondence from an examiner at the USPTO stating why the application was rejected (this won’t always happen, but it often does).  You’ll need to counter the rejection by doing more research in the field and explaining why the invention is unique and patentable.

As a patent agent or patent attorney, you might receive an Office Action with a rejection from the USPTO. That means you crafted a patent application and an examiner at the USPTO rejected it. Often they’ll reject an entire application or just a portion of the claims within the application based on existing patents or prior art.   Generally, you’ll need to argue that the invention in the patent application is different from the prior art the examiner may have cited in the rejection.

You may also need to get patent drawings created by an illustrator.  You’ll need to send out the details to the patent illustrator and make sure what you get back conveys the invention accurately.

As you can imagine, it’s exciting to get to learn about new inventions before anyone else.  And your workday will revolve around protecting those inventions.

Both patent agents and patent attorneys do the above-mentioned tasks. Patent attorneys may also deal with copyrights and trademarks, helping individuals and businesses protect additional intellectual property.

Since a patent attorney is admitted to the bar, they are licensed to practice law in a specific jurisdiction.  This means as a patent attorney, you may help in patent litigation matters.  You may also provide other legal services including drawing up contracts and licensing agreements.

Is There A Lot of Courtroom Work?

In order to be in a courtroom, you’ll need to become a patent attorney and even within that field, specializing in patent litigation.  Patent litigators spend a fair amount of time in court, but there’s also a lot of prep work and paperwork too.

Patent attorneys who are not primarily litigators and most all patent agents spend the majority of their workday writing and prosecuting patent applications before the USPTO.   You’ll be working with inventors, preparing applications, filing documents to the USPTO, and reviewing prior art. You may need to spend some time at the USPTO or on the phone with an examiner, but that’s not a typical courtroom setting.

Is Work as a Patent Practitioner Dependent on Geography?

In many cases it is.  Most small towns are not going to have an IP law firm or corporation that needs an Intellectual Property (IP) department. However, there are exceptions.  Some small towns do have universities with a fully staffed IP department. Other universities hire out their patent needs to a local IP firm.

Other small towns have corporations large enough to support an IP department or again, those that hire out their patent needs to a local firm.

Just make sure if you’re absolutely set on living in a particular small town employed as a patent agent or attorney that you do the research and uncover whether or not that town has opportunities.

Larger cities almost certainly can support this type of job,  but again, if you’re set on a specific location, it’s best to research it first.

Additional Resources

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