An electrical engineer who was in his first year in law school recently wrote me for advice. He was concerned that he was piling up debt to enter a profession that may no longer be viable, and he wanted to know if becoming a patent agent was a realistic option. His concerns were based on well-known issues in the law profession that have become even more acute in recent years. These include the huge cost of law school (up to $80,000 a year in NYC, with room and board), the lack of good, stable jobs and the major demands of the profession. Many prospective law students are asking similar questions and “voting with their feet.” A recent NY Times article reported that law school admissions are down 20% just from last year, and nearly 50% from 2004. In short, things have changed greatly since I graduated from Harvard Law in 1991. My general advice from my twenty years of experience in the law profession is that law school is no longer a good choice for most people. There are several potential exceptions, however. The one that most likely applied to the electric engineer was the “IP exception.” Intellectual Property is one of the hottest areas of the law, especially for patent prosecution and litigation. The opportunities are especially good for those who have degrees in electrical engineering or computer science. Under those circumstances, law school may be worth it, especially if you can get into a top 25 law school and do well with grades.
So what about the option of becoming a patent agent? For starters, it is a less difficult, less risky and less costly transition from engineer to patent agent than going through law school. In addition, as a patent agent you never have to bring in business to survive. But you are still dependent on others bringing in enough work for you to do. You can still make very good money, although not the potential money that top rainmaking partners can get. But then, you don’t have a lot of the demands and pressures a partner does. To become a patent agent, you need to meet three core requirements.
1. A high level technical degree that is in demand, such as a PhD in sciences such as biology and chemistry. However, in EE and CS a Masters will do about as well.
2. Registration with the patent bar. I told him that if he has not taken the patent exam, he should ASAP. It will help him determine whether he really wants to be an IP lawyer or patent agent.
3. At least two years of experience (ideally) of patent prosecution experience. Small firms or companies are the best bet for this, and this would also help you determine if IP is for you.
Once you have these three things, you will be a strong candidate for becoming a successful patent agent. As for whether you should give up a good engineering career to be a patent agent, that is a separate question that is best answered by the individual candidate. For this question also, “sticking a toe in the water” by taking the patent exam and obtaining some patent prosecution experience will help you decide which career is right for you.