Patent Examiner, United States Patent & Trademark Office in Washington, D.C.
Area of Practice: Intellectual Property
Year Graduated: 2006
After he graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Chemistry, Benjamin Packard chose a career path that was unique among the students in his major. "I graduated in chemistry, so the options were medicine, chemistry, PhD, or something else, and I chose the something else," he explains. For Mr. Packard, "the something else" meant law, and he chose to pursue it at University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. Today, as a patent examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Mr. Packard has a career that blends his two areas of expertise.
When Mr. Packard entered law school, he was pleasantly surprised to find that law wasn't as different from chemistry as one might expect. "I actually enjoyed law school," he says. "Coming from a scientific background, law is a lot like science. It wasn't as bad for me as it might be for people with other backgrounds. I enjoyed attending class. I enjoyed the discussion." Mr. Packard knew when he entered law school that a career in intellectual property law would be a good fit for him, and in that vein, he joined the Intellectual Property Student Association, served as a research assistant for a professor of intellectual property, and completed the Intellectual Property Law Concentration.
After he graduated from law school, Mr. Packard moved to Washington, D.C. to work with the United States House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, hoping to develop a political career centered on patent reform. He then changed direction and spent some time assisting law firms with litigation as a contract attorney. When Mr. Packard found out about a patent examiner position opening from his former boss who had a connection to the USPTO, he applied and received the job.
As a patent examiner, Mr. Packard's job is, in essence, to determine whether new ideas are patentable. "My focus is chemical," he explains. "I deal with pharmaceuticals, whereas others deal with mechanics or computers ... Basically what I do is search through scientific journals for evidence of whether concepts were previously known… and write letters to inventors' representatives or patent attorneys." Mr. Packard also writes appeal briefs fairly regularly as part of his work. He almost never works with clients, instead dealing almost exclusively with attorneys.
"Patent law is a lot like tax law in that it's statutory," Mr. Packard says about his work. "It's not glamorous like trial or criminal work ... The kind of person who would thrive is the kind of person who can just sit, think, and write. It's not that exciting in terms of glamour, but it might be your cup of tea. I happen to really enjoy it." He elaborates, "I enjoy thinking. It's fun to go and get challenged. That's really what I do now, I sit and I think. I get paid to think."
Mr. Packard works from home, and he appreciates the independence that this allows him. "In fact, we can work from anywhere in the U.S. We just have to check in about once a month...," he explains. "One of the best things is that we have autonomy. I'm on my own. That means as long as I get my work done, no one talks to me and no one bothers me." However, he recognizes the challenges associated with this arrangement. "I think that with autonomy comes discipline...," he says. An additional benefit of Mr. Packard's work is that he does not have to satisfy any billable hour requirements, nor does he have to drum up clients.
It is important to note that a scientific or engineering background is required of patent examiners. Mr. Packard recommends that, at the very least, students who are interested in becoming patent examiners make sure they satisfy this background requirement and also take a class in Patent Law. Even better, he says, is completing the Intellectual Property Law Concentration. "It gives you a general understanding of everything," he explains. "I only deal with patents, and I don't really deal with anything else, but it's nice to have that background." In addition, Mr. Packard advises students to cultivate "the ability to reason, to be able to translate science into legal argument."
While it is obvious that IP work is intellectually challenging, what is more subtle is that a career as a patent examiner can also be emotionally satisfying. Mr. Packard recalls an occasion on which an inventor came to the USPTO to hear a cancer expert opine on the inventor's cancer treatment research. "Our expert basically said this was going to be a big breakthrough way to treat cancers that have certain resistances. It was so exciting for this inventor that he actually started crying. It's a sixty-year old Russian guy who has spent thirty years of his career on this concept, and he's finally getting patent protection," Mr. Packard remembers. "That's why we do what we do."