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Attorneys involved with genetics include criminal prosecutors (district attorneys), public defenders, environmental lawyers, family lawyers, and patent attorneys. Genetics is relevant in the areas of identification of suspects and victims, identification of illegal goods (for example, items that involve the killing of endangered animals), environmental monitoring for harmful microorganisms, parentage determinations, and the patenting of genetic materials.

While all of these different types of lawyers may need to be somewhat familiar with the fundamentals of genetics, attorneys who work on gene patents must be very familiar with both genetics and biochemistry, as well as with patent law. The majority of these patent attorneys specialize in biotechnology. Most biotechnology patent attorneys have advanced degrees, with many having Ph.D.s in genetics, microbiology, molecular biology, biochemistry, or related fields. In addition to having a strong science background, patent attorneys must be licensed to practice law in at least one state, and must pass a registration examination administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Patent agents, as well as patent attorneys, can represent inventors before the USPTO. Patent agents have strong science backgrounds and must pass the USPTO registration examination, but are not licensed to practice law in any state. In addition to having very strong science backgrounds and the ability to work closely with inventors, patent attorneys and agents must enjoy reading complex scientific literature and be proficient at scientific writing. A large portion of the job involves writing scientific documents in the form of patent applications. Thus, people who enjoy reading and writing about scientific topics are well suited to the profession.

Patent attorneys and agents typically work in law firms, private companies, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (patent examiners), or in the technology transfer offices of universities and public institutions such as hospitals and research facilities, although some work out of their homes as solo practitioners. Patent attorneys and agents often know about ground breaking developments long before the public or others in their fields. This makes the career very interesting, exciting, and enjoyable. However, because of client confidentiality, patent attorneys and agents are required to keep these developments secret until the information is made public by the client or a patent is issued.

While some patent attorneys only draft patent applications and work with patent examiners, others work as litigators, patent law experts, law school professors, or trademark lawyers. For complicated cases, patent attorneys with an education in genetics are very helpful in explaining the technology to the judge or jury. Although most patent attorneys work on patent cases in courts, their expertise may also be called upon in criminal cases, when assistance is needed to analyze and explain complex sciences such as genetics and molecular biology.

Salaries differ widely among patent attorneys and agents who work in law firms, companies, and at universities. As of 2000, new Ph.D.-level patent attorneys could expect to earn at least $100,000 per year, while new Ph.D.level patent agents could expect to earn at least $75,000 per year. However, some patent attorneys could earn well over $500,000 per year.

Kamrin T. MacKnight


U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Manual of Patent Examining Procedure. Washington, DC: Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000.

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Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 1