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The Patent Bar Exam

What is the Patent Bar Exam?

In order to represent a client pursuing a patent in his or her dealings with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a practitioner must be a member of the Patent Bar.  The Patent Bar includes both attorneys and non-attorneys call Patent Agents.  The most significant step in joining the Patent Bar is passing a test officially called the Examination for Registration to Practice in Patent Cases but more commonly known as the Patent Bar Exam.  This Exam is designed to ensure that members of the Patent Bar are knowledgeable about the laws governing the patentability of inventions and the patent office rules and procedures governing the examination of patent applications.  The test is administered electronically at various testing centers around the country on a very flexible schedule.  It contains 100 multiple choice questions of which 90 are scored.  Passing requires a score of 70%.  Official information about the exam is available from the USPTO in a document called the General Requirements Bulletin.

Do I need to take the Patent Bar Exam?

Representing patent applicants before the USPTO is a major part of many IP law firm’s practice.  Joining the Patent Bar is required to be a full participant in this practice area, although a non-member may assist under the supervision of a member.  Other IP practice areas, such as patent litigation, patent licensing, trademark, and copyright do not require admission to the Patent Bar.  Whether a particular firm would insist on Patent Bar membership, or at least eligibility, would depend on the balance of the firm’s practice.  Even IP firms that do not require membership in the Patent Bar generally consider it highly desirable.

Am I eligible to take the Patent Bar Exam?

The exam itself does not test technical knowledge of potential inventions, such as mechanical devices, electrical devices, chemical compounds, software, etc.  Instead, the patent office requires evidence of such technical knowledge as a condition for taking the test.  The criteria are described in section III of the General Requirements Bulletin.
One acceptable method is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college in one of a number of specified technical subjects.  Some special rules apply to Computer Science degrees.  An advanced degree in one of the enumerated areas or a bachelor’s degree in a closely related area may qualify, but the office will scrutinize your transcript regarding how many credits were passed in various subjects.  The General Requirements Bulletin specifies what they are looking for.  A final form of acceptable evidence is passing the Fundamental of Engineering exam in combination with a bachelor’s degree in something.

When should I take the Patent Bar Exam?

The Patent Bar Exam may be taken before law school, during law school, or after law school.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each.  The advantages of waiting until after law school include:

  • You will have taken relevant classes in law school,
  • Some of the procedural topics may be more clear if you are working in a firm assisting practitioners,
  • You may be able to get an employer to pay for a preparation course, and
  • You may have more time to study (but don’t discount the workload of being a new attorney).

The advantages of taking the patent bar before or during law school include:

  • You are much more attractive to potential full-time and summer employers if you remove any doubt about your ability to pass the exam,
  • Some preparation courses offer student discounts, and
  • You won’t have yet another exam facing you when you finish the state bar exam.

How should I prepare for the Patent Bar Exam?

The material for the examination is contained in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP).  Although one could conceivably learn all of the necessary material by reading this tome, doing so would require an inordinate tolerance for bland and sometimes confusing prose.  Commercially available test preparation programs focus on the most highly tested sections of the MPEP and clarify the more complicated concepts.  A partial list of commercial preparation programs which differ in cost and format are shown below.
PATBAR is a popular home study course available for $595.  The package includes written materials, audio CDs (which are convenient for anyone that spends a lot of time in their car), and test simulation software.  There is no live instruction.  However, customers can email questions which are answered within a couple days.  Other home study courses include OmniPrep, Bullseye, Patent Education Series, and TAPRE.
PLi and Patent Resource Group offer week long live seminars a couple times per year at various locations.  The live seminars cost about $2,700 in addition to travel and lodging costs although various discounts are available.  For those that prefer to study at home, both companies offer home study versions including video of the presentations at one of the live seminars. Both programs also include exam simulation software.