How to become a patent attorney

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Undergraduate degree

Most South African patent firms require candidate patent attorneys to have an undergraduate degree in engineering from Wits, UCT, SU, UJ or UP – candidates with technikon / BTech degrees are seldom selected.

We favour software developers and engineers with mechanical or electrical university degrees.

Whereas, an MSc or Pr.Eng. makes engineer applicants only slightly more attractive; at least a Masters degree is required by applicants with Chemistry undergraduate degrees; and a PhD is typically required for applicants in the Biotech field.

Further studies

Law: Candidate patent attorneys must obtain a law degree (LLB). If the candidate’s intention is to draft and prosecute patents, an LLB degree through UNISA is sufficient. However, if the candidate wishes to license / commercialise intellectual property, a full time (3 year) LLB through Wits, UCT, SU, UJ or UP is generally required. A law degree through UNISA takes 4-5 years to complete.

Tips:

  • If you are studying law full time, you must obtain marks over 70%. Else, you may as well have studied a degree part-time through UNISA.
  • Since candidate patent attorneys are, in addition to their law degree, required to complete separate patent examinations, it is preferable to select commercial-related law electives than intellectual property related electives.

Patent exams: Candidate patent attorneys must complete the Patent Attorney exams. These exams cover copyright, patent, design and trademark law; and patent, design and trademark drafting, prosecution and litigation. The patent exams take at least 2 years to complete. Lectures are held one afternoon a week for about 5 months of each year.

Attorneys’ board exams To qualify as an “attorney”, a candidate patent attorney must attend about 6 months of evening lectures and write a series of Board exams (held over one or two weekends). To obtain one’s board exams can take as little as 6 months.

Articles: Before 2019, most candidate patent attorneys started their articles after completing their engineering degree, but prior to completing a law degree (LLB). These candidates had to complete a 3 year period of articles. However, with the new Legal Practice Act, a candidate patent attorney may only start his/her 2 year period of articles after completing a law degree. As such, from 2019, most candidate patent attorneys will likely complete their post-graduate 3-year law degree full time before joining a patent law firm and starting their 2-year period of articles. Admission as an attorney after completing articles is largely a formality – most patent attorneys gain no court or litigation experience during their articles.

Tax (optional): If a candidate patent attorney wishes to become involved in intellectual property commercialisation, he/she should obtain an HDip or LLM in Tax – there are just too many sections in the South African Income Tax Act specifically directed at IP-related transactions to ignore tax.

The above are the formal requirements. The most valuable knowledge, experience and skill that a candidate attorney gains during the 4-5 years prior to qualifying is on-the-job training, experience and exposure.

Salary and opportunities

Candidate patent attorneys must complete all the above (i.e. (i) engineering degree; (ii) law degree; (iii) patent exams; (iv) board exams; and (v) articles) before qualifying as a patent attorney. A candidate patent attorney’s salary starts at around R15,000 per month and, prior to being admitted as a patent attorney, his/her salary does not rise significantly. However, once qualified, a patent attorney’s range of options is extensive – many South African patent attorneys end up working in the US and Australia; various South African companies and government organisations employ patent attorneys; and there is always room for new patent firms.

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Intangible Consulting (Pty) Ltd.
9 Kruger St
Oaklands
Johannesburg
South Africa

T +27 (0)11 483 1439
T +27 (0)11 483 3128 (alt.)
C +27 (0)83 233 4582
F +27 (0)86 627 0055
info@ideanav.co.za