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Perspective of an Anonymous Patent Examiner


Written by Gene Quinn
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Patent Attorney, Reg. No. 44,294
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: March 16, 2009 @ 2:26 pm
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One week ago today I posted an article titled Change in Patent Office Philosophy Can Lead Recovery.  In the little more than a full week that this article has been available it has been viewed 640 times, which makes it popular for a patent article but nothing nearly as popular as, for example, Obama Wants Open Source IT Solutions for US, which has been viewed 5,910 times during the same span.  Notwithstanding, I have received more private feedback from current and former patent examiners regarding my urging for a change in philosophy than for any other article I have written.  It seems that there are many intimately familiar with the US patent system that feel a change is necessary, and it is time that examiners work for the Patent Granting Authority rather than the Patent Denial Authority. 

What follows is a portion of the communication I received from a current patent examiner who will remain nameless, hence the title of this post.  My objective is not to get anyone in trouble, but to provide an insider’s perspective on what is wrong with the Patent Office from a philosophical and human resources point of view. 

My view is that under Dudas the Patent Office became the Patent “Rejection” Office, and instead of trying to protect IP rights (which is our purpose), USPTO management’s solution was to hire lots of people to reject out of the problem. This led to an assembly line of under trained, unknowledgeable examiners who were taught how to reject, but not how to get applications to allowance. This “reject, reject, reject now” policy is encouraged by management’s policy of issuing a written warning on an examiner’s permanent file for allowance error percentage above 10%. While this may seem high, if you only allow 20 cases a year it is no problem for quality to find some kind of error in your cases, especially when they aren’t experts in your art.

Additionally, there is a lack of motivation to get cases allowed, because there is no incentive for the examiner to do the extra work required to arrive at claim language which can be allowed. Getting claim language to this point takes me several phone calls with attorneys and/or inventors due to the fact that disclosures typically contain multiple inventions, but claims must be limited to one and because the attorneys and not the inventors usually draft claim language which is usually broad. Add the time spent on phone calls to the lack of credit/counts given for time spent responding to amendments and the examiner is further discouraged from getting cases to allowance.

Finally, regarding examiner pay and promotions. The fact is that as GS 15 examiner is paid less per case/count than a GS 9 examiner. Therefore all he cares about and has time for is rejections. Taking time to call applicant’s for each of the 6+ cases the GS 15 must do every 2 weeks is impossible. Furthermore, as a GS 9 examiner there is no incentive to get promoted, because you know that you will make less per case/count if you get promoted any higher. Plus a GS 9 working OT makes more than a GS 11, 12 or 13 if he does the same number of counts as the respective higher GS level and does the OT to make up for the extra work. How does that make sense?

Before anyone would dismiss what this anonymous patent examiner wrote, let me tell you that I have heard this very thing over and over again from multiple sources.  Just this weekend I heard from someone I deem an exceptionally reliable source that he learned that examiners simply do not attempt to exceed their quota goals, which is one of the big reasons for the growing backlog.  In years past, in order to be recognized with awards many examiners would strive to reach 110%, 120% or even 130% of their target goals.  Apparently today there are few, if any, examiners that seek to exceed their goals.  Morale is reportedly at an all time low, and rightly or wrongly many examiners have decided that it is just easier not to issue patents than it is to issue patents and be second guessed.  Thus it seems that the exceptionally low allowance rate (now at 42%) and the growing backlog of applications is a function of examiners being urged to reject applications and examiners having little, if any, incentive to attack their work with enthusiasm. 

I don’t have to tell anyone familiar with the patent industry that the state of affairs at the US Patent Office is very sad.  The fact that management would push examiners to reject applications is appalling, particularly given that the explicit terminology in the relevant patent statutes presumes that a patent should issue and puts the burden on the examiner to find justifiable rationale before prohibiting the issuance of a patent.  The philosophical choice of USPTO management to prefer rejections to allowances is anathema to the statute the USPTO is required to implement, and directly contradicts the Constitutional purpose of the patent system. 

Large corporations are reportedly deciding to file fewer patent applications and abandon issued patents, which is the type of ignorant decision-making that typically goes along with difficult economic times.  During difficult economic times, however, the seed is planted for the next wave of new companies founded on innovative technology.  It is no secret that during recessions many who have decided not to pursue inventions are no longer faced with the same lost-opportunity-cost prohibition.  If you have lost your job or looking to expand into new fields, it makes perfect sense during a recession because there are few, if any, opportunity costs that stand in your way.  I have seen a tremendous increase in entrepreneurial innovative activity, and those I know have also seen the same trend.  But if the Patent Office continues to be an impediment rather than a partner we risk cutting off the next wave of technology that would lead to entire new industries, new jobs and prosperity. 

It is time for our leaders to take notice and fix the situation at the US Patent Office with all due haste.  Like always, it will be entrepreneurs and small businesses that lead us out of this recession, and by having a dysfunctional Patent Office we are only making it more difficult.  With so many Czars and hundreds of billions of dollars being thrown around Washington, DC, can’t we get just a little attention at the agency that is tasked with promoting the progress of science and useful arts?  I don’t think that is too much to ask for, is it?


About the Author

Eugene R. Quinn, Jr.
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
US Patent Attorney (Reg. No. 44,294)

B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Rutgers University
J.D., Franklin Pierce Law Center
L.L.M. in Intellectual Property, Franklin Pierce Law Center

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Gene is a US Patent Attorney, Law Professor and the founder of IPWatchdog.com. He teaches patent bar review courses and is a member of the Board of Directors of the United Inventors Association. Gene has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, CNN Money and various other newspapers and magazines worldwide

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Posted in: IP News, IPWatchdog.com Articles, Patents, USPTO

About the Author

is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog IPWatchdog.com, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.

 

20 comments
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  1. Gene,

    Nice (if sad) article. It points out why this so-called and oxymoronic “patent law reform” doesn’t address (not even close) the most important problem with the U.S patent examination system, namely a demoralized, undertrained and badly managed examining corps. Other than ensuring no further “fee diversion” (which the current version of this so-called “patent law reform” no longer prohibts), legislation won’t solve this problem. Instead, competent and experienced PTO management can, with lots of patience, persistent and time to unravel the mess that’s been created by incompetent and inexperienced PTO under 3 of the last 4 Directors. This isn’t “rocket science” but is badly needed to rectify the neglect the PTO, and especially the examining corps, has suffered from for too many years.

  2. EG-

    I agree with you, this is a sad tale. The one thing I disagree with (and I think this is the first time we have disagreed) is that it will take patience and persistence to unravel the mess. All you need is someone who really gets it and has some vision. With some minor legislative changes and someone on the inside who understands what the process can and should be, we can dig out from under the mess. I am encouraged really by a message like this from someone within the USPTO. It tells me there are still those who get it and want the place to be better. The fact that morale is low is also encouraging, in a backwards kind of way. If morale is low it is probably because examiners want to issue patents.

    I forgot to put it into this post, and will work it into another post later this week, but I have also heard that the “two set of eyes” policy may now be Office wide. That is also contributing to low morale of senior folks who have had signatory authority for years and are now back to needing someone else to sign off on their work. As one retired examiner told me, I would be very upset with that if I were still there. He said “as if some other examiner would know the art and the application better than me so that they could criticize my work!”

    -Gene

  3. This is all true and I’ve heard worse. I believe we all have Mr. Doll to thank for the “reject, reject, reject” protocol. The quality assurance examiners (second set of eyes) are looking for bad allowances, but they do not check for bad rejections. So what are the examiners going to do, risk losing their jobs? The ones in their first two years at the USPTO are especially afraid to allow a case because they are in their probationary period.

    In the “good old days,” examiners were free to allow claims and applications without a big ordeal. If the USPTO now is so worried about “bad patents,” then they should expand the central reexamination unit so that rexaminations can be disposed of in one year or less.

    Meanwhile, the whole thing royally pisses me off because I work with a lot of small companies and startups that need their patents issued in order to proceed with their business plan or get funding. I constantly have to explain to them that the reason their patents continue to get bogus rejections is because of an absurd philosophy at the USPTO.

  4. Patent Leather-

    Thanks for your comment. I too have heard worse, but try to clean up what I hear so it is suitable for a G Rated audience. From what I have heard, Doll is the one behind the Dudas et seq “reject, reject, reject” philosophy.

    I think the good old days, or something similar, is exactly what is needed at the USPTO.

    Like you I work with small companies and entrepreneurs. Have you ever tried to use the accelerated examination with very narrow claims followed up by continuations to get something in hand and continue on for more at whatever pace the USPTO wants to provide?

    -Gene

  5. Gene,

    We probably don’t “disagree” as much as my comment might have led you to believe. Like you, I believe the problem with the examining corps. needs to be addressed now, and what you suggest would certainly start that process in the right direction. My comment about “patience and persistence” is directed more towards the mentality of looking for “quick fixes” (as Dudas and company all too frequently ddi) that don’t work, and to the degree of the accumulated “mess” (over 10 years worth) we face cleaing up. I’m also probably more cautious and less optimistic than you are that a quick turnaround (after so many years of neglect) is possible without potentially “straining” the PTO (and I do hope I’m wrong on how long I think it might take to turn this PTO Titanic around). Anyway, Peace Brother!

  6. As a practitioner with fifteen years of experience I can second all the horror stories in the article and in the comments section. The PTO is broken at a fundamental level. However, I disagree that the problem lies solely with the PTO. The problem is that in the wake of KSR, and to a lesser extent Bilsky, virtually everything is unpatentable. All the examiners have to do is to find something that approximates the claim elements in any number of different references, articulate some rationale for combing them, and it’s game over.

    We service large corporate clients and they are all making drastic cuts in their filings and abandoning pending applications like crazy. I can’t blame them. In light of KSR and Bilsky, I would estimate that at least 50% of the patents in their portfolios are now invalid for obviousness and/or subject matter concerns. Take a quick review of recent Federal Circuit cases. It’s a bloodbath out there.

    Absent Congressional intervention to overturn KSR and Bilsky the patent system as we know it is going to collapse.

  7. As a practitioner in a large corporation, JC’s comments regarding cuts in filings and abandoning pending applications are true. However, there is another factor called very complex technology. Why tell your competitors how to make or do something when the probability of gaining patent protection is low? The alternative is to rely on trade secret protection and assume the risk that the product cannot be reverse engineered. This tactic is especially strong when the competitor must both reverse engineer and invest significant capital to produce a competitive product.

    For marginal, incremental inventions simply place the technology in the public domain (somewhere relatively out of sight) and again depend upon trade secret protection. For very complex products, like biologic medicines that depend upon a specific stain of microorganisms or precursors, again file no patents and disclose nothing beyond what the FDA requires. At a minimum, this would require competitors, even if they could reverse engineer, to file as a new drug. They then would have to treat their so-called follow-on biologics to the same battery of clinical trials and subsequent FDA approvals. The result being no savings in time or cost for them and buying time for us.

  8. “but not how to get applications to allowance. ”

    I disagree, anyone who can reject also knows how to get apps to allowance. That is much easier than rejecting IF the applicant wants to play ball. Other than that you’re stuck rejecting them into line.

    “Getting claim language to this point takes me several phone calls with attorneys and/or inventors due to the fact that disclosures typically contain multiple inventions, but claims must be limited to one and because the attorneys and not the inventors usually draft claim language which is usually broad. Add the time spent on phone calls to the lack of credit/counts given for time spent responding to amendments and the examiner is further discouraged from getting cases to allowance.”

    I will agree with that though. That much is for sure. It is easier to get things to allowance, but it takes longer in many cases. Talking on the phone isn’t hard, but it can eat into time.

    “Furthermore, as a GS 9 examiner there is no incentive to get promoted, because you know that you will make less per case/count if you get promoted any higher. Plus a GS 9 working OT makes more than a GS 11, 12 or 13 if he does the same number of counts as the respective higher GS level and does the OT to make up for the extra work. How does that make sense?”

    This is correct, the only reason to get promoted is to increase your potential earnings as a 11 CAN make more than a 9 if they both work full OT. However, the 9 makes more than the 11 for the same amount of work done lol.

    “Just this weekend I heard from someone I deem an exceptionally reliable source that he learned that examiners simply do not attempt to exceed their quota goals, which is one of the big reasons for the growing backlog.”

    Some do, some don’t. I know several in each catagory. Sorry if this bursts yours or your sources bubble.

    “The fact that management would push examiners to reject applications is appalling, particularly given that the explicit terminology in the relevant patent statutes presumes that a patent should issue and puts the burden on the examiner to find justifiable rationale before prohibiting the issuance of a patent. ”

    Um, no it isn’t if a sht ton of bad patents are issuing. As the opinion held for awhile. Also, the statute says no such thing. Read 151. Stop limiting yourself to 102 and playing coy. Also, wasn’t the business about the burden judicially created nonsense not present in the statute?

    “dysfunctional Patent Office”

    Problem is Gene, few decision makers irl think like blog / blog commenter whiners about the functioning of the PTO. If the backlog were down they’d think everything was hunky dorey. Which it probably is.

  9. Examiner6K-

    I sure hope you are not an examiner because if you are then we are all in trouble. You know nothing about allowing claims, which is far more difficult than rejecting claims. Additionally, the fact that you think that 35 USC 151 gives examiners substantive authority to reject an application shows you know absolutely nothing about patent law. Section 151 relates to the notice of allowance and the issue fee. So you telling me not to play coy is extremely interesting. It is yo who are playing games. The law is clear. The burden is on the examiner and the applicant is supposed to be presumed to be entitled to a patent. Section 151 merely says that if an applicant is entitled to a patent after examination then a notice of allowance should issue and the issue fee should be paid. Your lack of understanding of basic patent law is extraordinary.

    The Patent Office is dysfunctional and everyone knows it. Those on the outside and those on the inside understand the US Patent Office really really dysfunctional and making themselves irrelevant.

    I can assure you my sources are better than yours. The fact is that there are examiners who refuse to issue any patents, and the overwhelming majority of examiners no longer attempt to exceed their quota.

    So why don’t you tell us who you are Examiner6k? If you really believe what you write then I suspect I know who you are. The reason you are staying anonymous is because if we knew who you were then your credibility would be shot and no one would take you seriously.

    Sticking your head in the sand and believing that patent attorneys, bloggers and commentators are wrong is your choice, but a foolish choice. Top management at the USPTO is driving the Office straight into the ground.

    -Gene

  10. Gene,

    I would humbly suggest that you take some time and read some of the writings of Examiner6K (aka, 6000, aka 6) on other blogs such as Patently-O and the Patent Prospecter. You will see that the writings are consistent if not anything else. The writings are also full of logical holes and extremist views. Playing games is a hobby of the writer known as 6, although being kicked in the teeth is another hobby, as the other blogs can readily witness. There are contributors who no longer “take the bait”, while still others do so when an important point can be made in light of the twisted logic that 6 provides (the adage about supplying your own rope applies generously to the writer known as 6).

    There permeates through the writings of 6 a serious God-complex coupled with, as you put it, “you know absolutely nothing about patent law” – intentional or not.

    And you do not have to be concerned with “6” credibility. The view of 6 is so twisted and extreme, that there is no credibility to begin with for that persona (and yes, I realize that you are actually referring to the alter ego’s loss of credibility, but shhhh – let’s just keep that under wraps for now).

  11. Breadcrumbs-

    Thanks for the note. I am sure you are right. The thing that scares me, however, is that while the view of 6 is so twisted and extreme it is a view that could well be that of certain senior level officials with the PTO.

    How is it possible that the solutions that are so clear on their face are so illusive to those in power, and those who are clueless?

    Thanks for reading.

    -Gene

  12. Gene.-
    I gratefully appreciate the information given in this section. For more than a year now I have been fascinated with patent law and everything related to intellectual property protection. Although my professional background has nothing to do with law, or intellectual property protection or anything of the kind (you would be surprised) I am planning on a career change towards this direction. It is really disappointing and discouraging to find out how things really work in the Patent Office. From what I read here, I have the feeling that the intellectual protection process has been turned into a pure burocratic process based on numbers, “counts”, percentages and promotions– apparently there seems to be no interest in protecting the creativity of the inventors. The PTO seems indeed dysfunctional and at some point paranoid- what is exactly the rationale behind rejecting everything that fall on their hands?
    Knuckles

  13. Perhaps the single, most effective improvement in the patent system would be to enforce a standard of enablement that actually fulfills the public service of teaching the invention. The present standard is in most arts a farce, because of the malleable interpretation of the PHOSITA. Therefore, patent applications are written too generally. Patent applications should provide all the information to practice the invention. Particularly in the software arts, this would have a highly ameliorative effect on all the ills with the patent system.

  14. Agent G-

    Amen! I agree completely. I also think in any cooperative prosecution the examiners should focus on the specification and then work toward appropriate claim language with applicants. That would ensure adequate disclosure and lead to claims that could be issued.

    -Gene

  15. Would it be fair to say that the sword of the PHOSITA cuts both ways – since PHOSITA has nearly omniscient powers to know all prior art in a multitude of fields (not just the art field in question, but any art field where a similar problem may be solved), that very same PHOSITA carries a lot of knowledge that need not be repeated in an application?

  16. First let me be clear that I wholeheartedly agree with the statements that allowance error rates and the setup of the count system enforce the “reject, reject, reject” mantra. That said, I feel obligated to chime in here and correct some information regarding the pay/promotions issue.

    The fact is NOT that a GS-15 is paid less per case than a GS-9. Even those GS-15 examiners with “Expert” or “Senior Examiner” status (both of which increase the amount of work required) get paid more per case than any other examiner *at the same step* except possibly a GS-14 with Partial Signatory Authority. While there is an immediate disencentive to get a promotion since going from say a 9/8 to an 11/5 does result in a ~6% effective pay drop, anyone who wants to be able to sign their own work, plans to make a career out of examining (or even stick around long enough to max out their step at whatever grade they’re at), or cares about their pension (which considers only base salary, not OT) needs to take the promotion.

    Furthermore, a GS-9 working OT DOES NOT make more than a GS-11, 12 or 13 *at the same step* if he does the same number of counts. This is the same situation as promotions – initially you can’t make as much money but it also gives you more free time (or lets you be more honest about how much OT you worked, whatever ).

    I do personally take issue with the fact that a promotion or Signatory Authority results in less immediate pay per count, but there are still incentives to get promoted, so please be clear on the facts before throwing out absolutes that’ll get people stirred up.

  17. One major part of the problem is the farcical idea that “patent quality” = rejection rate. At best, that idea only captures half of the problem, and fails to acknowledge that the rejection of claims that are entitled to issue is also a quality problem. More importantly, no one seems to have any real idea about what “patent quality” means. It is a nose of wax that is twisted by the infringers’ lobby (the inaptly-named Coalition for Patent Fairness, for example) and others into anything they want it to mean.

    Bureaucracies exist to expand themselves. When the USPTO confronts an incoming flow of applications that drops off a cliff, due to Tafas v. Doll, KSR, Bilski and the Greater Depression put together, someone is going to panic and realize that the power and influence of their agency is dropping off a cliff along with the incoming workflow. Maybe then actual reform will be possible. Until then, we’ll just get more punitive rule changes, clueless Congressional bills and out-of-touch USPTO management.

  18. Verno Whitney –

    “I do personally take issue with the fact that a promotion or Signatory Authority results in less immediate pay per count, but there are still incentives to get promoted, so please be clear on the facts before throwing out absolutes that’ll get people stirred up.”

    I don’t think it was the anonymous examiner’s intention to “get people stirred” up. My interpretation is that he was simply trying to convey that it would be beneficial to those that DO want to get promoted and to those that DO NOT want to be promoted, that regardless of what you choose, you will get paid more money for more work. Ideally in a production based environment (like that found at the patent office) you would want to make more money in proportion to the amount of extra work that you do.

    Everyone Else-

    Regarding Continuing Claims Rules, Bilsky and KSR, my personal opinion is that they are very bad solutions/decisions that were aimed at a very few bad (i.e. horrible) patent applications where the attorneys and/or inventors were egregious abusers of the patent system. These “bad apples” have effectively spoiled the whole brunch. Now these decisions/solutions are now being used to prevent both the good applications and bad applications from being allowed.

    I’ve worked on several applications where I could have easily used KSR’s very loose reasons for motivation to combine, but knew that I would be overturned if the case ever went to appeal. But on the flip side, KSR is a great tool for the applications that combine technologies in analogous arts.

    In finality, it would be great if USPTO Upper Management, Middle Management, and Examining Core could have an open forum with Inventors and Attorneys. This forum wouldn’t even have to take place in the same room. It could consist of each party separately voicing there concerns amongst each other, then each party hearing the other party’s concerns, that way we could arrive at diplomatic solutions for everyone’s problems.

    I’m asking a lot, but that because I’m an optimist.

  19. The PTO was a very demoralizing place to work. I used to wonder why it could not be a place where professionals are treated with respect and are valued for their education and knowledge. A Ph.D. means nothing in the PTO. Why is that the PTO is considered a corporation and yet no one with any management background/skills is running it? The place is run like a soup kitchen. Bias, ignorance and favoritism is the name of the game. When you pick supervisors who apply for supervisory jobs because they hated examining, stayed at the examining level for just a few years or were not very adept at examining, what kind of supervisory skills or appreciation of examining do they have? These then become the very people who review cases for patentability and pick them apart. And there lies one reason for rejecting. Rejecting a case is much easier. Just wear the attorney down to abandonment. The examiner who is picked up as a supervisory official, is a know-it-all on that very day. There is nothing you can tell him he does not know about your case nor does he even listen or care. End of matter. Case closed. When we were told to reject, reject, reject, and an internal witch-hunt was in place to review and re-open by people who knew very little, all put in place for this witch-hunt, many astute examiners saw this day coming, where fees including maintenance, would fall and so would filings. The downhill free-fall has just begun at the PTO. Hold on tight everybody. And the very managers who instituted this, are about to leave!

  20. As a GS15 examiner with over 30 years experience, I believe there are several reasons for the poor quality of examination currently existing within the Office.

    First, the Office has rapidly expanded with a glut of applications in the last decade forcing a ridiculous number of new examiners to be hired. Such a large number necessarily dilutes the talent pool. Further, the newbies aren’t well trained. Prior to reaching their examining group, they spend months in a training academy attempting to learn all facets of the job and being supervised by examiners having no knowledge of their art area. In the past, examiners were placed in their art units after 2 weeks and received hands-on training by experienced examiners or their supervisor who were knowledgeable about their art. Later, they attended classes at regular intervals for further training.

    When I started in the Office, supervisors had many years of experience. Currently, you see examiners appointed as supervisors one year after becoming a primary examiner. They barely know how to do the job themselves, let alone train other examiners. They are usually appointed in art areas they are unfamiliar with, hindering their ability to assist the junior examiners in searching and expediting the prosecution.

    New examiners are also trained to write short stories on first action, never getting down to the crux of the inventive concept and wasting a great deal of time. The short form of the 1970s worked great, consolidating the issues for either a final rejection or allowance on the next action.

    The Office has also failed to keep up with the classification system, breaking down subclasses for easier searching. They have forced examiners to only word search every case. Subclasses have grown so large that it is virtually impossible to comb through an art area.New examiners never learn the art and are never comfortable that they have the best art in the case. The published applications are no longer classified by examiners, causing numerous misclassifications. This causes examiners great trepidation when it comes to issuing a case fearing that Quality Review will bounce it, and they will be rated poorly. The SPEs also fret about QR since it will affect their rating as well. Therefore, examiners continually make new rejections, attornies file RCEs rather than appeal, prolonging patent prosecution. Hence,the low allowance rate in the Office.

    I, for one, don’t believe recent cases, such as KSR, have forced the extended prosecution. Even before these cases, I always examined and trained with a common sense approach to obviousness. Some combinations are clearly logical, some simply don’t make sense. My allowance rate has always been around 67%.

    Since I work at home, I don’t have as much contact with the younger examiners as in the past, but I do believe most examiners who choose to stay in the Office want to become a Primary Examiner, if not for pay than for no other reason that their decisions become their own. I just think that with the push in the Office for “quality”, it has become difficult for the above reasons, causing many talented hires to leave the Office and the remaining ones to flounder in many cases.