Become an Intellectual Property Attorney: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Research the requirements to become an intellectual property attorney. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as an intellectual property attorney.

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Should I Become an Intellectual Property Attorney?

IP lawyers often help clients protect their ideas or products from being used by third parties. This involves knowledge of and application of laws governing copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets. Other duties might include writing legal documents, researching laws to reference in legal documents, negotiating settlements and arguing a client's case before court.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Degree Field Law
Experience 1 to 5 years of experience
Licensure Licensure required in all states; satisfactory exam scores and registration required to practice IP law with the USPTO
Key Skills Critical thinking, analytical reasoning, negotiation, research, writing and problem-solving skills
Salary $136,833 per year (2015 median salary for all intellectual property lawyers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, CareerOneStop, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), American Intellectual Property Law Association, (July 2015)

Step 1: Complete an Undergraduate Degree Program

Not all law schools require applicants to possess a bachelor's degree, and there is no specific undergraduate field of study required to attend law school. However, the field of IP law is unique in that practicing it usually requires an individual have a bachelor's degree in a scientific, mathematical or related field. Therefore, aspiring IP attorneys might consider completing an undergraduate degree program in engineering, chemistry, physics or biology.

Success Tip:

  • Prepare for the LSAT. A student's score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) may determine acceptance into the school of his or her choice. Several companies offer preparatory courses that provide test-taking tips, which may help increase an examinee's score.

Step 2: Take the LSAT

Most students take the LSAT during their junior year of undergraduate study. The examination period runs for a half-day exam and consists of multiple-choice questions designed to test a student's reading, analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills.

Step 3: Graduate from Law School

First-year law students complete courses in basic law subjects, such as contracts, torts, property and constitutional law. In the remaining second and third years, students take elective courses and gain practical experience through fieldwork and judicial internships. Some schools allow students to concentrate their studies on IP law. Students in these concentrations complete courses in drafting IP licenses, patent prosecution, biotech patent law, copyrights and unfair trade competition. Further knowledge of IP law may be obtained through elective classes like licensure of intellectual property rights and international intellectual property. Some concentrations may also allow students the opportunity to complete internships, research assistantships or independent studies in the subject.

Step 4: Take the State Bar Exam to Become Licensed

To become licensed, all states require that individuals pass a bar exam, professional responsibility exam and be admitted to its bar association. The format and content of each state's bar exam differs, but may include multiple days of testing of both state and national laws. Questions may be in multiple-choice or essay format.

Success Tip:

  • Prepare for the bar exam. Exam prep courses can help provide test-taking techniques and instruction on the fields of law included on a state's bar exam. Many companies offer these courses, which can help an individual pass the exam on their first try.

Step 5: Take the USPTO Exam

Many IP lawyers need to interact with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). To do so, they must be on the Office's registry. To be listed on the registry, a licensed attorney must apply, provide evidence that they possess an undergraduate degree in an approved field of study and pass an exam.

Step 6: Gain Experience as an IP Attorney

Law firms, private companies and national laboratories hire IP attorneys to assist them with the patents and other protections their inventions require. Most employers require about 2 to 3 years of experience.

Success Tip:

Consider earning an LL.M. to advance in the field. Sometimes, employees might prefer to hire licensed attorneys who have master's degrees in a scientific field. Law schools offer Master of Laws (LL.M.) in Intellectual Property Law to licensed attorneys. These programs provide IP attorneys with advanced knowledge of the issues that can arise in the field. Courses in these programs cover topics like licensing intellectual property rights, law in cyberspace, patent, trademark and trade secrets law, IP theories, and telecommunications law. Some LL.M. programs may require students to write a thesis in order to graduate.

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