I have known for a while now that I would be doing an in-depth look at the Senior Management Team at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The series is currently in progress, and this is the second installment – my interview with Theresa Rea. Rea is a long time patent attorney and former President of the AIPLA. Currently, however, she is the person in the federal government with the longest title — Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Her title is longer than her boss’ title thanks to the inclusion of the word “deputy” twice.
When I interviewed USPTO Director David Kappos in December 2011, after the interview was concluded I asked him to give me some thoughts on his Senior Management Team. “When I say ‘Theresa Rea’ what are the first things that come to mind,” I asked. Kappos responded: “Tremendous background knowledge, energy, fun person to work with and to team with, deep knowledge of the life sciences sector…” Director Kappos would go on to say that with Rea at the agency “we’ve got all the bases covered. I’m the corporate guy, she’s the litigator. I’m the IT guy, she’s the Pharma person.” Indeed, Deputy Director Rae is the real deal and a nearly ideal compliment to Director Kappos.
My first interview with Deputy Director Rae was shortly after she joined the agency. She has now been at the USPTO for approximately 1 year, but seems as invigorated and full of energy as she did when I first met up with her. She seems to love the job and relish the challenges that come with this moment in Patent Office history.
We chatted for approximately 55 minutes, discussing USPTO hiring, the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, the America Invents Act, what a typical day looks like on her calendar and much more. So without further ado, here is part 1 of my interview with USPTO Deputy Director Theresa Rae.
QUINN: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with me today. There is a lot of exciting stuff going on here at the patent office and some exciting stuff going on across the river. So maybe we could get that out of the way right away. It was a little bit of a shock to some people last week when President Obama said he was restructuring the Commerce Department. I have always thought of the Patent Office as the crown jewel of the commerce department and I think a lot of other folks do as well. Do you have any other information other than what we saw and heard in the press conference that you can share? How is the Patent Office going to fair in this? Or is this still all up in the air awaiting the Presidents proposal?
REA: I think that is correct Gene. I think we are going to have to wait for the President’s proposal because there is very little that I can share with you right now that has not already appeared in the press. To some extent, it caught many of us by surprise. Change always gives a chance for opportunities. I can’t wait to see what the President has in mind and how it will play out.
QUINN: Really? You know that was the interesting thing in the announcement. From my perspective there seemed to be a part of the proposal was to elevate the Small Business Administration to a Cabinet position. So I wondered if that might also be true with respect to the Patent Office, because it’s hard to put your finger on an agency that has such a long and rich history.
REA: I think you are right Gene. It would be nice if the USPTO increased in stature. Right now we are just essentially in wait and see mode. But I think that Director Kappos is doing a fantastic job using his executive skills in leading this agency. And I think that frankly other agencies could benefit from his leadership and expertise.
QUINN: OK, well we can leave it at that. I don’t want to get you into trouble although being the political observer I am, when something like that comes up, I can’t not ask the question.
REA: You couldn’t resist it could you Gene? [Laughter]
QUINN: No I couldn’t resist! Now to get onto some more Patent Office centric things, one of the questions I get almost everywhere I go and by almost everyone I talk to is about Patent Office hiring. There seems to be a tremendous interest in people applying either for a position as an examiner or a position as a member of the patent board. So I thought I would throw that out there and ask what you might be able to tell us about the hiring process.
The questions I get from a lot of people go something like this: “I just submitted my materials X weeks ago or Y months ago. When do you think I’ll hear from them? Do you know what they are looking for? What’s the process? Am I going to get interviewed?” and that sort of thing.
REA: Right now USAjobs.gov is where openings for all positions here within the PTO are posted. I will focus on the patent examiner positions and our administrative patent judge positions, because that is where we are hiring the most people. However, from time to time we have other positions that we are hiring for here within the USPTO. We are looking not just for skilled patent practitioners but also people with expertise in the financial sector, international patent experience, and our office of general counsel. Right now we are expanding in a wide variety of other parts of the agency. However, I do understand what you are focused on when you ask that question , and that most of your audience are patent attorneys.
When you look at our patent examiner hiring right now, it is broken into two parts, the IP experienced examiners and the new entry level patent examiners. Our IP experienced examiners get typically 4 weeks of training which focuses mostly on technology and searching. The regular entry level patent examiners get 4 months of training through the Patent Training Academy where in addition to technology and searching, the examiners are exposed to patent law, usually for the very first time. We are finding that we have great success with our IP experienced examiners. People who were either examiners here before but left the office and have decided to come back. Also people who were in private practice, whether a corporation or a law firm, but found that wasn’t the best match or fit for them, and now being a patent examiner intrigues them. We have reconfigured our examining training program for these experienced practitioners and are continuing to improve the patent training academy training program for these IP experienced examiners.
In terms of procedure, our human resources department does the first cut of applicants and determines if they are minimally qualified for the position. When people apply through the USAjobs.gov website, they identify whether they have a mechanical, electrical, chemical or biotech degree. Then after that initial review is done through our human resources department, the resumes are given to the technology center hiring managers. The time between applying and interviews is relatively short considering we get thousands of individual applications for examiners. We are really expanding our examining ranks right now. Over 100 examiners have started so far this year with new classes starting every two weeks.
QUINN: And when you say this year, you mean this fiscal year?
QUINN: Is there a target number between now and the end of the year or are you looking for any good candidates that fit a need?
REA: Of course we only want top quality, fantastic applicants of which there are many out there. Our original goal at the beginning of this fiscal year was to hire approximately 1,500 examiners, a combination of experienced and non-experienced. That is technically still our target and what we hope to accomplish.
QUINN: When you say technically, are you having some difficulty finding those qualified candidates?
REA: No, we have to make sure that we do not over hire. And based on the fees that we input from our user community, we have to stay within our budget so we only spend the money which comes in, and Congress has rightfully appropriated.
QUINN: In terms of the board, Director Kappos told me that you were looking to double the size of the board and you have already hired 20 this fiscal year.
REA: That is correct.
QUINN: That is another 80. Are those folks primarily from within? Are they senior examiners getting promoted up or are they people coming from the outside? If you are going to double the size of the board then the board is going to have a completely new complexion.
REA: That is totally correct Gene. This year we hope to hire approximately 100 administrative patent judges and it is possible next year to hire another 100 administrative patent judges, which will result in a completely new complexion for the board.
QUINN: They used to be called examiners in chief, I believe.
REA: Right and now they are called APJ’s [administrative patent judges]. We are looking for talented examiners to promote from within. We are also interested in talented attorneys from outside of the agency. They can be with corporations, law firms, or with other federal agencies where they have litigation or inter partes experience. So far most of the judges hired, in fact more than 50%, have indeed come from outside the USPTO. That does not mean that that trend will continue, but with the need for inter partes review proceedings and post grant proceedings, we would like to hire experienced attorney’s who have experience navigating inter partes matters.
QUINN: Do you know what the starting salary is for those folks?
REA: I believe it is about $165,300.
QUINN: So this is a very exciting time for the Patent Office. Even if this is the last hoorah, the Kappos administration will have significantly changed the Office and increased it in size and has secured a good budget moving forward. Last time you and I talked you had just joined.
QUINN: So I would like to get a comment from you about the changes in the Patent Office, the changes in the practice and now that you have had an opportunity to see the government from the inside, what is your feeling about the direction this is all headed in?
REA: I think it is all headed in a very positive direction. Before I joined the agency, the Senate had not yet passed the first version of what we now call the America Invents Act. We also had some discussions with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries on some very, very early preliminary discussions on patent harmonization. Forgive me, but I want to take a quick step back, in terms of Director Kappos’ initiatives with the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, soon to be called the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, Director Kappos did a fantastic job in hiring James Smith as our Chief Judge of the Board. Chief Judge Smith is doing a fantastic job in that he is personally spending a lot of time hiring the new judges while maintaining very high quality of the work produced by the Board. We are getting great, experienced people at the Board right now. We always have something to do here at the USPTO. Right now the America Invents Act takes up most of our time, and I assume you are going to have a few questions there.
REA: But I think that Director Kappos is looking at things from a wide variety of directions. The expansion of the board is key to help us meet all of the requirements imposed upon us by the American Invents Act. I think that we will definitely meet Congress’s expectations there. We have to get judges hired and ready to go for September 16th of this year when the new post grant procedures are effective. There is just never a dull moment at the USPTO.
QUINN: No, that is what it seems like from the outside observing inward. Every day is a new, fresh day. Is that quite a change from practice life? I known that sometimes in practice you can get blinders on because as practitioners, some of the things we do requires your full attention for at least several days in a row before you can shift gears. That does not seem to be what I observe here.
REA: No that is certainly not what it is like here. We deal with a variety of big issues, several of them in the course of a single day and that does not even include medium and lesser issues. When I come into the office at the start of every morning, I have in the back of my mind what I would like to accomplish. But there is always something that preempts my best intentions when I walk in the door.
QUINN: So it is exciting.
QUINN: Good, now before I move past the board, you are a statutory member of the board along with Director Kappos, correct?
QUINN: How many cases do you get involved in?
REA: I believe so far I have been on a panel to decide five cases and I am slated for three more in the near future.
QUINN: And how does that transpire? By that I mean are these cases that have a new ruling potentially or likely to be appealed to the Federal Circuit? How does that come about?
REA: In some cases, the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences does have expanded panels. We usually have three judges on every panel, but if an issue is particularly significant, we might extend the panel to five or seven judges. I was placed on one of those panels but it became moot because there was a petition route where the applicant was successful. So it was not actually heard by the board. However, the cases that I have handled to date are rather typical of most board appeals and are not really cases of first impression.
QUINN: So you are just pitching in to help out?
QUINN: Is that to give you an understanding of how the board process works from the decision maker?
REA: Absolutely, since the board reports to me, the more knowledge that I have the better I understand about what the board does, the better prepared we will be to plan for the future with the new obligations for the board under the American Invents Act.
PREVIEW: Part 2 of my interview will pick up with discussion of the America Invents Act, rulemaking, comments and what the USPTO hopes to accomplish with its America Invents Act Road Show.
COMING ATTRACTIONS —
On Tuesday, January 24, 2012, I sat down on the record with Chief of Staff Peter Pappas. The interview is being transcribed, so stay tuned. I contemplate a profile article similar to my conversation with Gary Michelson, likely to be published later in February 2012.
On Friday, January 27, 2012, I sat down on the record with Commissioner for Patents Peggy Focarino. The interview is being transcribed, so stay tuned. The Focarino series is tentatively scheduled to run the week of February 13, 2012.
On Friday, February 3, 2012, I will be sitting down with Commissioner for Trademarks Deborah Cohn, with publication anticipated for the week of February 20, 2012.