A lof of people ask me if I’m a patent lawyer. No, I’m a patent agent, and there is a significant difference, but some areas of overlap.
Both patent lawyers and patent agents can prepare and prosecute patents before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Both have become licensed to do so by passing the PTO’s own bar exam. The area of patent law is so different from other aspects of law, with its own unique codes and procedures, that it has its own bar exam supervised by the Federal Government. People with a technical degree or technical experience can take the bar exam and become patent agents or, if they already have a law degree, they can become patent lawyers (patent attorneys).
A patent agent can only practice patent law before the PTO. When it comes to other aspects of the law, such as preparing an assignment of a patent, suing someone for infringing, or dealing with patent law before a court, patent agents are powerless. These matters require a qualified attorney.
Patent agents are often hired to assist attorneys or corporations in drafting patents or in supporting patent work. In my case, I was already employed in research and engineering, pursuing patents and patent strategy, when I saw a need to expand my skills. I began studying for the US PTO’s patent bar exam that I took and passed in 1996, with the help of an excellent patent bar exam course offered by Patent Resources Group. I completed additional requirements and became registered as an official US patent agent in 2007, the first employee of my company to become a patent agent, as far as I know. Doing so has opened many doors to me and has helped me be more effective in my research work and in my work to guide and develop patent strategy.
If you have a technical background and an interest in patents, I would encourage you to consider becoming a patent agent. And if you’re interested in a law degree, take the extra time to also become a patent attorney. There is great demand for skills in patent law, and it’s an exciting area to pursue.