March 21, 2015

The Great Unprofessional Career Fair:
Nicole the Patent Agent

If you're wondering why I'm going first in the Great Unprofessional Career Fair, it's because it's the oldest trick in the book of presentations: always present first so they have nothing to compare you to.

That said, I'm going to talk a little bit about my career as a patent agent.

But first, just a little background on how I got here: I graduated with a degree in biochemistry, worked in a lab for less than a year after college, then decided I am way too much of a weenie to deal with potentially cancerous chemicals all day.

But after deciding what I didn't want to do, I had to find something that I did. And so naturally, I Googled it.

After quite a bit of time getting friendly with my search engine, I decided that a patent agent sounded like a good thing to be: I would still get to deal with science (I get to talk to the inventors who actually like being in the lab), I would get to write a lot (which I like doing, hence the blog), I would get to argue even more (which I love doing, ask my parents), and there is virtually no risk it'll lead to a three-headed offspring down the road.

After about six months of strategic informational interviews with literally anyone I could find who'd talk to me, I finally convinced someone to hire me as a paralegal in Chicago. (I say strategic because in addition to getting great advice, I was also making connections, one of which actually led to the job I have now.) After about a year and a half in Chicago (during which I passed the Patent Bar to become certified as a patent agent), I was offered the job I have now in DC.

And so that, in a nutshell, is how my career came to be. That being said, below are six questions which I've been asking every guest poster and which I'm going to answer myself now.

(I know this technically means I'm talking to myself, which is a little awkward. But so is a banner with whitey-tightys on them.)

Nicole: At my firm, I am basically a lawyer without a law degree. What that means is that I don't work 9-5; I have a certain billing requirement for the year (i.e., hours I need to bill clients), but I can do them whenever I want. Generally though, I still try to work from 9-6 every day.

Right now, I mostly handle patent applications that other attorneys started but have transferred to me. What that means is that another attorney wrote a patent application and sent it to the Patent Office, hoping to get a patent. The Patent Office is stingy with their patents though; once they receive an application, they give it to an Examiner who (you guessed it) examines the application to decide if it's actually new.

Generally, the Examiner decides that it's not new so he sends us back a rejection telling us all the reasons why this is not actually a new thing. And the next step is my job: I have to analyze his rejection and decide if I should argue with him or change the application slightly. Once I make my decision and respond to the Examiner, he can either say "okay, cool, here's a patent" or he can reject my application again.

This cycle can go on for as long as the client wants to spend their money arguing or until we get a patent.

However, as I've gotten more experience, I've  been branching out and doing some other things. I actually just finished writing my very first patent application, which is super exciting. I also sometimes help attorneys do attorney things, like write opinions and other legal stuff that I'm not going to bore you with. (Unless you ask... then I can talk all day.)

N: As I was saying above: I didn't want to work in a lab and there are only so many relevant jobs for a biochemistry major. Plus, I like writing and arguing.

N: Breaking into the field. Because I don't have a grad degree or a law degree, it was hard to compete with the PhD-attorney-X-Ray-vision superheros vying for the same positions as me.

And really, that's why connections are so, so important. I don't think I would have gotten the job I have now if I hadn't reached out to all the people I did when I was starting out. Like they say: It's not what you know, it's who you know.

N: Almost everything I do requires thought so I never get bored. And honestly, I love the feeling of convincing someone (like an Examiner) that I'm right. (A quality my family has always found most endearing, I'm sure.)

N: The stress can really wear on you. Sometimes, it's laid back but other times, it's Wednesday, a client wants something on Friday, the same Friday you have four other things that four other clients want then too.

I think that stress is pretty universal for client-serving careers but when you mix in the majorly competitive nature of the legal field, sometimes I'm thankful for Tums, you know?

Network! Network, network, network... I can't say it enough. Ask everyone you know if they know any patent agents or patent attorneys, and ask those patent people to set up an "informational interview." I've never had anyone say no (they feel too bad) and you'll get great advice and valuable connections!


So that's that! I'm not sure anyone has ears big enough for that earful and I'm certainly not going to test it any further.

So with that, please don't hesitate to leave a comment if you have any questions, or shoot me an email ( And of course, if you want to be featured in the The Great Unprofessional Career Fair, read what it's all about here and let me know!