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Intellectual Property As a Career Path

By Tennell Lockett

A while back, a good friend of mine announced that she wanted to be an IP lawyer. She had a simple question: “what do I need to do?” My facetious response: “run away from yourself as fast as you can.” In truth, I had not given it much thought and did not have a good answer for her. While too late to be of any help to my friend, below are a few measured thoughts for any person considering IP as a career option.

1. Identify your general area of interest. Many people question whether a technical background is necessary. Some undergraduates change their major. Some graduates go back to school to obtain a technical degree. Actually, it depends on what you want to do. Keep in mind that IP is an immensely diverse field. Some IP practices are directed to entertainment, business deals, managing or obtaining copyright or trademark portfolios, and require no technical application. For others, a technical background is required. For example, in order to obtain patents on behalf of clients, you will need to have a technical background in order to become a member of the patent bar. Identifying your area of interest will assist you in obtaining any necessary qualification.

2.  Identify a law school with a good IP program. In addition to law school rankings, you also want to consider the rankings of the IP programs at those schools. The caliber of program makes a difference. The obvious advantages are the quality of professors and school resources. Do not overlook, however, the value of developing relationships with some of the brightest minds in the field (both professors and peers), which often prove helpful after graduation. Below is U.S. News and World Report’s most recent ranking of IP law school programs:

1)      University of California – Berkeley

2)      Stanford University

3)      George Washington University

4)      Boston University

5)      New York University

6)      Columbia University

7)      University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

8)      University of Houston

9)      Duke University

9)      Franklin Pierce Law Center

3.  Identify a place of employment. This may sound obvious, but it is never too early to conceptualize the type of environment in which you want to work. Large firm? Mid-size firm? Boutique shop? Do you want to join a solo or shadow an agent? Where do you want to live geographically? Are you flexible moving, if necessary?  Having an early general awareness of the type of work environment that you desire will help you steer your path in the proper direction.

4.  Get a mentor.  IP law is extremely nuanced. In addition to the general skill set required of any practitioner, IP typically requires a knowledge and mastery of specialized practices, laws, rules, procedures, phraseology and usages. Most IP fields are compromised of surprisingly close-nit networks of individuals and social circles. There are often informal, unwritten rules that guide the practice. For example, the entertainment and IP litigation practice areas have many, well-established procedures and customs that you would be pressed to find in any written rules or literature because they have evolved from the historical practice. A good mentor can assist you in navigating through these fields. Likewise, a good mentor can put you in touch with the right people and organizations.

5. Be active.  Getting there is only half the fun. Once you have begun your career, you have to build your practice. Constantly meet people. Be active in IP-specific organizations (local and national), bar communities and civic and social groups. Publish were possible and speak publicly as often as possible.


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