Degree Programs in Patent Law: Options and Information

Professional degrees in patent law are available at accredited law schools. Entry-level law students may focus on patent law as a concentration area within a 3-year Juris Doctor (J.D.) program. After that, they may pursue a Master of Laws (LL.M) in Intellectual Property Law.

Essential Information

Patent law is a sub-area of intellectual property law that covers the government-issued licenses, or patents, that protect original scientific inventions. Aspiring lawyers who want to focus on patent law should enroll in a law school program - either a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Master of Laws (L.L.M.) - that focuses on patent law. All attorneys, including those specializing in patent law, must pass the bar exam upon graduating from law school. Patent lawyers must gain additional licensure from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Juris Doctor With Concentration in Patent Law

Patents constitute legal protection of inventions over a set period of time. In the U.S., patents are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to inventors whose patent applications survive its particular screening process ( J.D. students concentrating in patent law learn how to draft, defend and appeal these applications. Moreover, patent law students learn to discern what inventions are actually patentable and what degree of novelty and utility as well as level of non-obviousness inventions must generally have in order to satisfy USPTO criteria. In most J.D. programs, students complete standard coursework, in topics such as contracts, property and torts, during the first year. Electives coursework in concentration areas like patent law are then completed during the second and third years.

Education Prerequisites

To pursue studies in patent law, one must first be admitted to a J.D. program. Applicants must have a bachelor's degree, with supporting transcripts, and submit their scores for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Applicants from outside the U.S. may be required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to prove their English fluency. For the specific area of patent law, students should have bachelor's degrees in fields such as engineering, biology, physics or chemistry, due to the USPTO's requirement that all licensed patent attorneys have scientific backgrounds.

Course Topics

Concentration tracks in patent law usually consist of three survey courses that cover general topics in intellectual property law, as well as specific methods for filing successful patent applications. Common topics include:

  • Antitrust regulations
  • Biotechnology patents
  • Drafting patent claims
  • Licensure of intellectual property claims
  • Patent prosecution and appeal

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

Patent attorneys are lawyers more generally. As such, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), they are expected to see 13% growth in total employment, or about as fast as average for all professions, from 2008 to 2018 ( Intellectual property lawyers in particular should experience growing demand for their services during that time span.

In May 2010, the BLS stated that the median annual wage for all lawyers was $112,760. At that time, most lawyers worked in private practice, while many others were employed by local and state governments.

Licensure Info

Patent attorneys must complete two licensure regimens. First, like all lawyers in the U.S., they must pass a written bar examination in the state or territory in which they wish to practice. This is usually a state-designed examination, the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), or both of them. An additional legal ethics test may also be required. Applicant lawyers must have a J.D. from a school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) in order to sit for any of these licensing examinations.

Additionally, patent attorneys must be licensed as such by the USPTO, via passage of its standard Examination for Registration to Practice in Patent Cases Before the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Lawyers who wish to take this examination must first demonstrate sufficient background in science either by submitting educational transcripts or by proving their professional experience in a scientific field. The exam itself has exactly 100 questions covering patent laws and regulations, as well as professional ethics.

Master of Laws in Intellectual Property Law

Practicing attorneys and law students looking for greater specialization in intellectual property law, including patent law, may enroll in relevant LL.M. programs. These programs train lawyers to establish and defend their clients' claims to patents, copyrights and trademarks protecting original artistic and scientific creations. Some LL.M. programs require students to complete master's theses or research projects to finish their degrees.

Education Prerequisites

Applicants must have J.D. degrees and transcripts from a law school accredited by the ABA, or, in the case of some students from outside the U.S., professional legal training and credentials equivalent to a J.D. degree. Letters of recommendation and educational transcripts are also required. Programs that admit students from outside the U.S. may require them to submit their LSAT scores and to pass the TOEFL.

Course Topics

LL.M programs train students to understand specific patent, copyright and trademark laws, as well as general principles of economics and business. Legal issues in fields such as biotechnology, mass media and the Internet are also common topics. Other topics include:

  • Economic theories of the law
  • Food and drug law
  • Litigating and resolving disputes
  • Multinational intellectual property law
  • Patent litigation

Continuing Education Info

With an LL.M., a graduate may be qualified to pursue the terminal Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) degree. This degree, offered by only a minority of all U.S. law schools, is research-intensive and is usually pursued by lawyers seeking to become law professors or scholars.

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