As a black man, pursuing a career in patent law was not an obvious choice. Being one of the only areas of law that requires a science or engineering degree, it’s likely that most of us minority patent attorneys are first in our families.
Without the luxury of a line of family lawyers encouraging us to pursue STEM studies in order to become patent attorneys, it’s no surprise that the industry is drastically lacking in diversity. It’s the same with the inventors we serve: today, only 12% of all US patent inventors identify as women, and only half a percent of US-born innovators are African American.
My first patent mentor once explained it to me this way: “Think of how many minorities get an engineering degree. Then think about how many of these minorities pass the patent bar. Then think about how many of them go to law school. And then think of how many of them graduate and pass at least one state bar. What you have is only a handful of minorities who are even qualified to be patent attorneys.
That’s why I founded the National Council for Patent Internships (NCPP), a non-profit organization that provides scholarships and programs to address the systemic lack of training, funding, and mentorship that prevents various applicants from pursuing this line of work. But the ability to take these programs in-house and partner with a tech powerhouse like Meta (formerly known as Facebook), makes moving the needle more feasible than ever.
A perfect match
When I was introduced to Meta in early 2021, it was meant to be temporary. I was hired as a patent attorney on a contract basis to fill in some gaps in the PTO. But when my colleagues and Jeremiah Chan (Associate Director and General Counsel, Head of Patents, Licensing and Open Source at Meta) heard about my passion project, it became clear how committed the company is to favor of inclusiveness.
Not only was I offered a full-time position, but we quickly joined forces with what is now known as the Patent Pipeline Program (PPP). The aim is to provide diverse members of the STEM community with a unique opportunity to add a layer of legal knowledge to their scientific and technical skills so that they are well placed to enter the field of patent law.
PPP applicants are typically undergraduate students nearing graduation, who have already graduated, or people currently working as engineers/scientists. Although the program has worked with law students in the past, they are generally not able to apply for the PPP because they do not have the bandwidth to work full-time like PPP candidates do.
How PPP Works
PPP provides training, development and networking opportunities to diverse applicants (women and/or racial minorities) over a six month period. During the first phase, candidates take part in NCPP’s renowned hands-on patent training, where candidates learn the fundamentals of patent law. Then, participating law firms bring in candidates as technical specialists, where they learn the rough mechanics by working on real client issues.
Then they join us at Meta, getting behind-the-scenes insight into internal work and an understanding of how business goals influence patent strategy. Candidates complete the program at the law firm, where they will be positioned to receive full-time offers.
Following the official launch of the program in June 2021, the first cohort of PPP scholars are set to begin the fourth phase of the program, where they will transition from their work at Meta to their respective law firms. They have successfully completed the NCPP’s intensive program covering patent law, prosecution strategy and practical patent drafting assignments. Previously, they completed their second phase of the program where they trained with private practice lawyers to analyze inventions, draft work product and advise clients.
But even before the end of the program, several of the candidates have already told me how they have benefited from their participation. The opportunity to receive free training and development, to use their technical skills and to work for both a reputable law firm and Meta, makes it difficult to pass the patent bar, apply for the faculty of law and passing a state bar seems doable without incurring student loan debt.
One of the candidates said it best. Priya Jagadish, a current PPP participant, said, “Before joining the Patent Pipeline program, I had no idea how engineers could use their backgrounds to become lawyers. I feel extremely lucky to have found the program and the mentors to guide me in this career.
Building for a better future
This program demystifies the path to a patent career for diverse candidates by addressing some of the industry’s fundamental recruitment issues. For example, due to the cost of training, many patent law firms prefer to hire someone with experience rather than a new patent recruit without any training or real-world experience.
As a result, many diverse applicants find themselves faced with a catch-22, where law firms require new hires to have patent experience, even though the primary place to gain patent experience is at work in a law firm. PPP gives candidates that chance by providing the experience most law firms expect, and with Meta’s resources and reputation behind it.
Representation matters, and when underrepresented innovators see patent practitioners who look like them, it will improve fairness and access to a system that has historically left them behind.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Braxton K. Davis is Associate General Counsel for Patents at Meta and Executive Director of the National Council on Patent Practicum Inc. (NCPP).