A life-saving vaccine. A novel smartphone feature. A drone that delivers packages to your doorstep. What do these seemingly different things have in common? They are all inventions protected by patents that prevent others from making, using, or selling them. As innovations like these improve our lives and spur even more incredible discoveries, it’s crucial to defend them against intellectual property theft.
That’s exactly what patent lawyers do. With their extensive knowledge of the law and background in science and technology, patent lawyers help clients safeguard their intellectual property and navigate any legal issues that crop up around it.
If this career sounds intriguing to you, you’ll want to know about a few unique educational requirements. Read on as we outline how to become a patent lawyer.
What does a patent attorney do?
Whether you realize it or not, patent lawyers have their hands in countless things that you interact with daily. Patent lawyers help solo inventors and businesses protect their intellectual property. Their work spans from securing a patent for a gadget or pharmaceutical drug to enforcing copyrights for a song or book to helping trademark a brand’s logo and slogan.
As you can probably imagine, a patent lawyer’s responsibilities vary. Many spend their days drafting and filing patent applications, researching and advising clients on the originality of their ideas, and defending intellectual property against infringement.
Is it difficult to become a patent attorney?
The journey to becoming a lawyer of any type is lengthy—and patent law comes with additional steps. As patent lawyers deal with complex and technical concepts, they must also gain specific undergraduate experience and pass an examination administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Curious about what other practice areas are out there for you to explore? Check out our resource hub, How to Become a Lawyer, which explores multiple practice areas and the pathways required to get there.
The steps required to become a patent lawyer
Whether you’re just beginning to explore legal careers or already have set your sights on becoming a patent lawyer, here are the steps to becoming one.
Choose the right undergraduate degree
The majority of legal practice types don’t have any formal undergraduate degree requirements. This is where patent law differs. The career requires that you have a scientific or technology background. Meaning: you’ll want to think ahead and choose an appropriate major if you’re planning to enter patent law.
What degrees are best for patent law?
Patent lawyers must have a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering. Some of the most highly-sought degrees include biology, bioengineering, chemistry, civil engineering, electrical engineering, and physics. Majors like these provide a solid foundation across a range of technical areas which will help students better understand client inventions.
Attend and graduate from law school
Once you’ve completed a four-year undergraduate degree and passed the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the next step to becoming a patent lawyer is to complete your Juris Doctor (JD) degree from an ABA-accredited law school. For guidance on where to apply, check out our own ranking of the best-known law schools.
It’s worth mentioning that you can become a patent agent without attending law school—which is someone who helps businesses navigate the patent process, but can’t provide legal advice. However, you need to attend law school if you plan on becoming a patent lawyer.
Most full-time JD programs take three years to complete. During this time, you can expect a variety of courses covering the many aspects of law. While there aren’t any requirements on the ones you take, many universities have programs that offer concentrations in copyright and trademark, intellectual property, and patent law.
Once you’ve completed your law degree, you’ll be required to take and pass the two-day bar examination to obtain your license to practice law. Each state has their own exam format, but most consist of a standardized multiple-choice test and written essays on various legal topics.
Pass the USPTO exam
As we’ve mentioned, one core distinction between patent law and other legal professions is the need to take an additional examination. To practice patent law, you must register with the USPTO, which requires that you take the license exam commonly referred to as the “patent bar”. This exam—which consists of 100 multiple choice questions taken over two three-hour sessions—tests knowledge of patent laws, rules, and procedures.
Additional considerations for becoming a patent lawyer
So far, we’ve run through the essential steps to become a patent lawyer. It’s also worth highlighting some of the other ways you can set yourself up for a successful and rewarding career.
Continuing education and certifications
There are a vast range of options available to help you strengthen your patent knowledge. While continuing education and certification will take additional time, they can make a real difference in standing out as a specialist in the field. Many patent lawyers have Master’s and Doctoral degrees, such as a Master’s in Engineering or a relevant scientific discipline. Some also choose to obtain their Master of Laws (LLM) in patent law.
Careers for patent lawyers
When it comes to choosing where to work, most patent lawyers will join firms that specialize in intellectual property law.
But traditional law firms aren’t the only place where patent lawyers can put their expertise to use. Patent lawyers also find rewarding roles as in-house counsel at medium to large-sized corporations (such as manufacturing and pharmaceutical development companies) or with universities and government agencies. Some opt to be self-employed.
As you begin to apply to patent law jobs, you’ll want to ensure that you’re showing your best self with a polished resume and well-crafted cover letter. Take a look at our guide on writing cover letters for some tips that can help you get noticed by hiring managers.
Network with patent lawyers
Networking is invaluable for any lawyer, and especially for aspiring patent lawyers. Connecting with other patent lawyers can go a long way in increasing your chances of finding career opportunities in this niche practice area. While the prospect of networking can feel daunting, it doesn’t have to be—especially with a bit of practice. Our networking guide covers tips on how to successfully connect with other legal professionals.
Find patent lawyer mentors
You can gain experience and valuable insights through external mentorship. Seek out lawyers who practice in the legal field and find opportunities to learn from them. Other local lawyers may be able to help you, or you can cast a wider net and look outside of your state. We’ve put together a mentorship guide to help you get started.
Stay up to date on patent law (and collect CLE credits!)
You’ll also want to keep up with Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements after graduating. There are many places to turn to to get your credits. For example, USPTO offers training with CLE credits and the American Bar Association has a Section of Intellectual Property Law that offers informative webinars and CLE opportunities.
There are also a host of legal conferences targeted toward intellectual property and patent law—along with our very own ClioCon. Considered one of the top legal technology conferences, our annual event provides unparalleled networking opportunities and shines a light on the most technologically advanced legal tools on the market.
Final notes on how to become a patent lawyer
Blending the worlds of science and engineering, business, and law, patent law is among the most intellectually-stimulating careers for aspiring lawyers. Patent lawyers have the fascinating opportunity to be at the cutting edge of science and technology, and are often among the first to see innovations after years of hard work.
Patent law is also a fast-growing legal practice that is experiencing increased demand for qualified attorneys. This is in large part due to the accelerating pace of technological advances and surge in patent applications. In 2021 alone, global patent applications hit their highest level ever with 3.4 million applications made. While the journey to becoming a patent lawyer can be arduous, many find the opportunities to be well worth it.
Paving the way for the next generation.
Thinking about becoming a lawyer? Clio’s Academic Access Program gives instructors, administrators, and students in clinical and classroom settings complimentary Clio access. It’s the perfect tool to set students up for successful careers, no matter their chosen area of practice.