Last week I was on the Road in Western Pennsylvania, with a quick road-trip north to visit Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, visiting Duquesne University School of Law on Wednesday for a lunch and learn presentation and then the University of Pittsburgh School of Law on Thursday for another lunch and learn presentation. In between, on Wednesday evening, I drove out to Dubois, Pennsylvania to give a presentation to the Entrepreneurs Club that is associated with the Small Business Development Center of Clarion University.
As with most presentations to inventor or entrepreneur groups things quickly moved into answering questions from the audience, who then dictate where we spend our time. On the other hand, my presentation to the law students at Duquesne and Pitt were remarkably predictable. Whenever I travel to speak at law schools I inevitably get asked questions about what students should be doing to (1) set themselves up in a position to be hired; and (2) how to ultimately land a job. With that in mind I thought it might make sense to do a primer on steps that can be taken in order to find a legal job.
1. Take and pass the patent bar exam
For virtually everyone, the best advise one can give now is to take and pass the patent bar exam while you are in law school. First, the job market is tough and anything you can do to set yourself apart will be helpful. Second, if you pass you will be a patent agent, which opens up the possibility that you might be able to get some relevant work experience during your law school career, helping you bridge the gap toward obtaining that 2+ years experience that firms all say they want.
Third, as patent reform works its way into being tested on the patent bar exam the universe of testable material will grow by at least 50%, likely more. The questions won’t get any harder on the exam, but with more to know the opportunity to slip up will be greater. I have been teaching patent bar review for 11 years and time and time again students slip up most often when faced with a question that requires them to know whether to apply the old law or the new law. An example is with respect to international 102(e) dates. Before November 29, 2000 we follow one rule, after a completely different rule. With patent reform students will need to know both first to invent and first to file, which will be a challenge for any newbie.
Take the exam as early a you reasonably can, but don’t even consider taking it until the end of your first year of law school. You need to focus 100% on your first year of law school.
2. Identify what you bring to the table
It is critical to understand that what a patent attorney or patent law firm wants is some kind of technical expertise. Unlike in virtually any other field of law, those who are patent bar qualified can meaningfully assist a patent attorney day one, particularly those who are Category A qualified. So much of what we do is work with inventions and try and figure out what is novel, from what is novel what is likely non-obvious and then we set about describing the invention. There is typically a healthy amount of time spent figuring out whatever the inventor has provided, and that task can be done by those with some expertise in the field and a curious, inquisitive mind. Much of this early “grunt work” can be done by someone with even meager legal skills or education.
With this in mind you must determining what it is that is unique about yourself. What technical expertise do you bring to the table? For example, I am an electrical engineer who focused my undergraduate education on computers. I am constantly on the Internet, constantly working with code and have self-taught myself all kinds of things about search engines, search engine optimization, e-commerce and more. So my education and personal interest in software and the Internet has created a niche for me in the patent world.
John White, the creator of the PLI patent bar review course, has a similar story. He is a Civil Engineer, which gives him a rather broad based understanding of engineering principles. He is also the ultimate “car guy.” If you ever visit John’s house you will find that he has a 2 car garage dedicated to working on automobiles, included is the hydraulic lift you normally see only at service stations. When he went to work for the Patent Office there was need for volunteers to work examining automobile transmissions. John jumped at the chance. He has since done patent work for every major car company in the world.
The only way you become patent bar qualified is to have the requisite science or engineering training. That means something interested you in science or engineering before you went to college, and likely something has interested you ever since. Figure out what it is and what you can contribute from day one helping with and you are one step closer to finding a job.
3. Do a patent search
Once you figure out what you bring to the table now you have to figure out where to send your cover letter and resume. You could just use the shotgun approach, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You will waste a lot of money and inefficiently use your time. You could have a degree from an Ivy League school in Chemistry or Biology, followed by a Ph.D. at the most exclusive school on the planet, followed by a law degree from Harvard or Yale and my firm wouldn’t be interested even if you were. None of us do chemistry or biology so we just cannot use your skills. But if you are an electrical engineer or a computer engineer and you are familiar with Bilski machine or transformation we are VERY interested!
What this means is you have to identify attorneys and firms that work in the space where you have something unique to contribute. The best way I know how to do that is to do a patent search. Search for technologies that you know something about and see what attorneys or firms are listed on those patents. Then see if any of those firms or attorneys are hiring. Even if they are not hiring perhaps you know someone at the firm, or more likely your Career Services or Alumni Relations person might know someone. Then you start networking.
4. Networking is an absolute must
Gone are the days when your law degree is going to get you a job with little or no effort. Invariably, wherever I go, those students who are the most energetic and aggressive about finding a job actually find jobs. Everyone will eventually find a job, and the patent industry pays well, so the question isn’t whether you will get employed but rather how long before you get that critical first job that will give you experience.
I always tell students that when they attend networking events or any event where attorneys will be present they need to make sure they are not walking around with their resume stapled to their forehead. Everyone laughs, but just remember that the kind of networking that you need to do to find a job is NOT constantly job hunting. You cannot be in sell mode constantly. You need to make contacts. You need information. You need someone who can point you in the right direction.
Career services people call it informational networking, or something similar. Family, friends of family and alumni are great places to start doing information networking, because it is far easier to get those folks to say yes to a 15 minute phone call, or to meet at popular local lunch spot or nearby coffee shop. Ask questions to gain information, ask what might be good to put on a cover sheet, even ask them to take a look at your resume. You can, and should, also ask whether they know anyone that is hiring that might be able to use your skills. Also ask whether there is anyone they know who has a similar background or set of experiences that might be willing to speak with you in exchange for a free lunch — you buy! You want to make it easy for people to say yes to talking and easy for them to like you and want to help you. Notice, I didn’t suggest asking anyone you are doing informational networking with if they will hire you! If they have a spot and are interested your questions will provoke them, but don’t burn the informational bridge with a direct attempt to get hired.
5. Business cards
Wherever you go you absolutely, positively must carry business cards with you. You won’t have your resume stapled to your forehead (if you are listening), but you want to be ready for any opportunity. With attorneys and professionals coming and going from every law school you never know when you will have an opportunity, so always be prepared.
Another reason to carry business cards is to make sure you can engage in the trading of business cards. Think back. How many times have you ever offered your business card and not received a business card in exchange? It certainly happens, but many if not most people actually want to network, whether for business or friendship. If you offer a business card the likelihood is you will get one in return and then you have contact information from someone you can seek to network with for information and advice (see above).
Now you have to decide what to put on the business cards. Of course, your business cards need to be professional, so no e-mail addresses like “firstname.lastname@example.org.” If you don’t want to use your school e-mail address for some reason then get a GMail account with something like your first name – dot- last name. Also be sure to have an updated and professional LinkedIn account and include your URL on your business card. You may also want to consider putting your patent bar qualifications on the card as well, perhaps saying something as simple as “B.S. Electrical Engineering, Rutgers 1992.”
6. The Internet is forever
It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. The Internet is forever! Be careful what you post to the Internet, and attempt to segregate your personal life from your professional life to the extent possible. I say this because Facebook is so extremely popular, but it is probably not the most business friendly platform for an individual professional setting out to try and make a mark. Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with family and friends, but much of what you and your friends do and say on Facebook probably won’t convey the polished professional that you are.
There is nothing wrong with using Facebook. I use it and to my surprise have actually gotten clients from connections on Facebook. That being said, you might not want to put your Facebook profile address on your cards and resume the same way that you would with your LinkedIn account.
Finally, remember, the Internet is forever! I can’t stress that enough. What seems fun when you are blowing off steam after a few drinks at the end of the semester after finals might not seem quite so fun or appropriate later.