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What Is the Patent Bar?

Students taking an exam on laptops in a library. A young Black female student sits in the front wearing a red and black plaid flannel and long braids in her hair

For most lawyers, passing the bar is the last major hurdle before practicing law. But because patent law is notoriously complex, law school grads who wish to perform certain functions have one more obstacle in their path.

Attorneys who appear before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on patent matters must also pass the patent registration examination, also known as the patent bar or Patent Office exam.

If you intend to practice as a patent attorney, you'll want to prepare for the patent bar with the same seriousness you brought to the bar exam. This article provides an overview of the patent bar, who is eligible to take it, and how to prepare.

What to Expect from the Patent Bar

The patent bar consists of 100 multiple-choice questions, administered in two sections of three hours each. Ten of the questions are ungraded beta questions being field tested by the patent bar, but they aren't separately identified. You must answer 70 percent of the remaining questions correctly to pass.

Most questions on the patent bar come from the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP) or the America Invents Act (AIA). Applicants can use a digital copy of the MPEP, but no other materials are allowed. Since the test relates to practice before the USPTO, it focuses more on patent applications than litigation.

Testing centers across the country administer the exam year-round. First, you must file an application with the Office of Enrollment and Discipline (OED), which includes an application fee and proof that you have the scientific and technical knowledge required (more on that below). Once the OED determines your eligibility, you can choose when to take the registration exam.

The patent bar examination is now entirely online, and candidates receive an unofficial score at the end of the test. So you'll know whether you passed before walking out the door! Official results are mailed out a few weeks later.

Who Can Take the Patent Bar Exam?

The USPTO's General Requirements Bulletin provides detailed information about admission to the patent bar. One of the most important sections to pay attention to is the Scientific and Technical Training Requirements. Essentially, you can only apply for admission to the patent bar if you have an underlying degree in a scientific or technical field.

A J.D. is not required to take the patent exam. Anyone with a science or technical degree can take it and become a patent agent. However, patent prosecution is only handled by attorneys who pass the patent office exam.

Qualifying programs include Ph.D., master's, and bachelor's degrees in:

  • Biology
  • Computer Science
  • Chemistry
  • Genetics
  • Pharmacology
  • Engineering

Review Category A of the General Requirements Bulletin for the full list of qualifying science degrees. But if you don't have a science or engineering degree, never fear. You still might be able to become a patent practitioner.

Category B of the bulletin explains that those with a bachelor's, master's, or Ph.D. in a different subject can meet the general requirements by completing coursework in physics, chemistry, biology, or other acceptable subject matter.

You may have already completed some of these credits as part of your general education requirements in undergrad. Depending on where you choose to go to law school, you might be able to fill in any gaps on the same campus. If patent practice is something you'd like to pursue, your law school's career office or your intellectual property professors can help you figure out how to fill in the gaps.

How Difficult is the Patent Bar?

The patent bar generally has a lower pass rate than state bar exams and the Uniform Bar Exam. The pass rate has hovered around 45% for the last decade. That's even lower than the previous ten years, where the pass rate was around 58%.

One reason for low pass rates could be the lack of practice questions from previous exams. The PTO stopped releasing questions from past exams in 2004, and those who take the registration exam must sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) promising not to share what was on the test. Questions from 2003 and earlier can only help so much since much of the current exam is based on the 2011 America Invents Act.

The test also requires examinees to answer a lot of questions in a short amount of time. Like other bar exams, passing the patent exam requires strict time management. Examinees can only spend about three minutes on each question if they are going to complete the entire exam in time. So although you can look up rules in the MPEP, you lose a lot of time doing so.

However, like any other exam, following a structured study plan and taking practice tests will greatly increase your chances of passing. Below, we've compiled information about some popular patent bar review courses.

Patent Bar Review Courses

Patent bar review courses come at a range of prices and offer a variety of different study experiences. The following companies are generally well-regarded:

  • Practicing Law Institute (PLI): PLI hosts one of the largest and most-respected patent bar review courses. One significant benefit of PLI's course is the inclusion of "Patware," a practice test program that emulates the patent bar's exam. You can choose between an on-demand web course or a schedule of live web courses spread out over two weeks. Both programs cost close to $3,000, although students who sign up with a .edu email account can receive a $1,000 discount.
  • OmniPrep Patent: OmniPrep offers a patent bar review course that promises to refund their fees if you fail to pass the course. The course site indicates they update their practice exam questions monthly, ensuring the materials are up-to-date. The course isn't quite as robust as PLI's but is offered at a much lower price point of $495.
  • PatBar: PatBar provides materials to facilitate self-directed study, as well as an "Exam Simulation Suite." PatBar's services are offered as a 9-month subscription for $595. You can get a refund for any reason within 30 days or within nine months if the Patent Office determines you don't qualify during that time. You'll get a free 9-month renewal if you take the exam and don't pass.
  • Patent Education Series (PES) Bar Review: PES offers several different prep materials for the patent exam, including quiz decksMPEP audio summaries, hard copy study books, and an online patent training workshop. The online course package is available for $597, or you can choose online instruction plus hard copy materials for $997. The quiz decks are also available separately for $197.

You should consider which aspects of the patent bar give you the most concern and choose a company that provides materials and courses that focus on that part of the test.

Your Next Steps

The first years of legal practice are full of unique conundrums. You'll need to develop trusted resources to help you determine how to deal with issues as they arise. The articles found in FindLaw's Law Students section, along with the advice of mentors and peers, can help ensure that you have the information you need to navigate problems confidently.

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