A patent agent is licensed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office to draft patent applications, file them with the USPTO and present arguments to patent examiners on behalf of clients. This specialized area calls for legal and technical skills because the agent must be able to explain every element of the invention and formulate arguments that distinguish the invention from others.
You don't have to be a lawyer to be a patent agent. A patent agent must take and pass the patent bar examination, which is given by the United States Patent and Trademark Office twice a year. Before sitting for the exam, candidates must first prove their technical background by showing that they have at an undergraduate degree in engineering, chemistry, biology, or other technical disciplines. The candidate can also prove that she has the equivalent of such knowledge by detailing the number of credit hours in a particular technical field. The exam tests the candidate’s knowledge of the Manual of Patent Examination and Procedures. The pass rate for this exam is currently about 50 percent.
Patent agents are limited to patent prosecution. Patent prosecution refers to the process of drafting a patent application and arguing that the application should be approved. It is different from patent litigation, which refers to the process of helping a client assert rights with respect to a patent that has already been issued. Patent agents cannot file trademark applications or practice other areas of the law.
Patent agents can work for themselves, for a law firm practicing in intellectual property or for a tech company. Given that there are only 10,139 practicing patent agents as of 2011, this field remains competitive. Starting salaries begin at $75,000, and can often go much higher, especially if the patent agent's technical skills are in high demand.
Being a patent agent often appeals to scientists and engineers with advanced degrees, because practicing patent prosecution is often more lucrative than being a practicing scientist or engineer. This discipline allows you to stay on top of your area of technical expertise and work with other professionals in your field, while making a substantially higher salary.