The USPTO asked for comments regarding the under-representation of women and minority groups in the patent system as part of a study they must conduct per the SUCCESS Act. Santa Clara Law professor, Eric Goldman, and I responded along with 22 other signatories.
Last weekend, I accomplished another exciting career milestone: co-authoring and publishing a written work with my advisor. No doubt, it was challenging and at times frustrating (Prof. Goldman sets an incredibly high bar, especially for his students), but if you ever have the opportunity to write with a professor during your time in law school, I highly HIGHLY recommend it. It’s the quickest way to gain valuable training and experience from accomplished experts in your field. Plus having your name next to theirs on anything is a major clout boost.
I always figured our first co-authored piece would be something Internet law related (duh). Regardless, I’m proud of the work we did to hopefully spark discussion about gender diversity in the patent-system and why the USPTO desperately needs to reevaluate their archaic technical education requirements for the patent bar exam.
If you’re wondering how the USPTO and the patent bar examination have anything to do with my current career in Internet law and Section 230 advocacy, don’t worry, I was just as confused about a year ago too.
When the story of how I decided to pursue Internet law comes up, I always mention how I grew up with the Internet, the mandatory Internet law course I had to take during my senior year in undergrad as a Computer Science major, my discovery of the Technology and Marketing Law Blog, and my meeting w/Prof. Goldman at SCU before I started law school. But I usually leave out the weird little detour into intellectual property and patent law I took before I settled on my current path. That’s how all of this started.
My undergraduate advisor, who also happened to be the Internet law course professor, was aware of my interest in going to law school after I obtained my C.S. degree and thus advised me to pursue a career in intellectual property – specifically, patents. It made sense right? Engineering -> patents is the lucrative and obvious transition for anyone with a science or engineering degree interested in law (so much so that Santa Clara Law even has a dedicated engineer to patent attorney program). To be honest, I didn’t have that strong of an interest in I.P. or patents (I much preferred the ACLU v. Reno unit of the course), but I also didn’t really think Internet law was a career choice. I mean – Google Internet law and you’ll see for yourself. And it’s not like there’s law schools that boast their Internet law programs — though I’ve made it point to make SCU Law known for it.
So I ran with the whole I.P. and patent path that my undergraduate advisor had created for me. I graduated with an Applied Computer Science; Software Engineering degree and continued working for Northrop Grumman where I started to take on more responsibilities in the legal department. I joined their intellectual property committee helping sift through patent applications, some Computer Science related, but mostly Physics, Chemistry, and Electrical Engineering. A lot of my time was spent reading and digesting these fields I had zero experience with just so I could evaluate complex applications. It was boring, terrible, and I hated it. But I figured that’s just how it is.
The next logical step in my patent law career was becoming a patent agent the summer before law school. It seemed relatively straightforward and I knew I had the work ethic and time to dedicate myself to the challenge. Well, it turned out the patent bar exam was the least of my concerns as I couldn’t even get past the application.
It should have been easy – I have an engineering degree and $200. Except there’s one slight caveat specific to computer scientists. Our degrees must come from an ABET accredited school. Now of course, none of the other engineering and technical degrees require such accreditation (which totally makes sense considering software now makes up more than half of U.S. filed patent applications…/s). Why was that a problem for me? Notice I graduated Applied Computer Science – not Computer Science, which ironically enough, is actually a harder and more intensive program than regular C.S (we actually take more CS courses too). George Mason’s Computer Science degree is ABET accredited. Applied Computer Science is not. And the only reason it isn’t, according to GMU, is simply because they didn’t want to pay for the extra accreditation. FML.
You know who else isn’t ABET accredited? Stanford CS. The number one school in the country for Computer Science.
Needless to say, I was rejected. The USPTO complains about the lack of women and computer scientists on the patent bar – well here I am; a woman and a computer scientist that they rejected not once, but twice. The USPTO allows you to reapply by showing that you have relevant experience. I figured my work on the intellectual property committee and my APPLIED COMPUTER SCIENCE DEGREE would be enough the second time around. Nope. Rejected again.
At this point I hit full panic mode. I was told I have to become a patent attorney if I wanted my C.S. degree to be relevant but now I couldn’t even sit for the patent bar. I spent a few weeks exchanging panicked what-is-my-purpose crisis emails with Prof. Goldman while simultaneously enrolling myself into a Chemistry degree program at NOVA community college until we both very quickly realized that this was entirely pointless because my destiny was Internet law – not patents. (pro-tip, save yourself the headache and just be up front about your interests with your advisors and mentors).
Honestly, the rejections were a blessing in disguise. I would have been a miserable candidate for the engineering to patent attorney program and I’m so SO happy and fulfilled in what I’m doing now. Everyone always comments on how awesome it is that I know *exactly* what I want to do as a law student – well you can see now, it wasn’t super easy to get there.
Regardless, the point in all of this is that the process I went through was ridiculous and had I actually had a passion for patent law, I would have had to go find something else to do or take a couple miserable semesters of chemistry during my 1L winter break. For how lacking in diversity the patent system already is, it shouldn’t be that difficult to just to sit for the damn bar. The exam is already hard enough and those that can pass it have already proven they know their shit. Besides, it’s not like you spend your time only working on chemistry or EE patents. As a patent attorney, especially in the valley, you’re likely to see anything and everything (just like I did at Northrop Grumman). So it turns out your technical degree rarely mattered in the first place.
Hence, our comments to the USPTO. I may not be actively pursuing a career in IP (though I am a 512(f) nerd) or patent law but as another woman and computer scientist that’s been roadblocked by the nonsensical and archaic requirements, it was important that I contribute to this discussion to hopefully pave the way for the next generation of aspiring female patent attorneys.
Addressing One Concern
In collecting signatories for our comments, a few women noted that it felt like we were trying to say that we need to make it easier for women to sit for the patent bar because women aren’t smart enough to get a STEM degree.
As a woman and as someone who went through the blood, sweat, and tears of obtaining a STEM degree, I actually take offense to this point. It’s not that women aren’t smart enough to pursue STEM, rather, it’s that women are just not pursuing STEM in general. Why? Many reasons. One big one is that STEM is still considered a “man’s field” and because of that, our education system is still persistently failing us by consistently marketing STEM towards men. Growing up, no one ever told me I could be an engineer (besides my parents). My schools always targeted “female oriented” practices towards me like design, marketing, nursing, etc. That’s not a problem our comments can solve, let alone the USPTO can solve. That’s a serious, systematic issue that starts at the very root of our education system.
Furthermore, some women don’t want to pursue STEM because we’re afraid of being abused or condescended to by men. We’re intimidated to enter an entirely male dominated field. Even today I still encounter run of the mill sexist computer scientists. Again, that’s not a problem we can solve with these comments.
The point is, yes, the STEM system is broken. And a broken system that fails women feeds into another broken system that fails women – the patent bar. If the technical requirements don’t do anything to increase the quality of patents and only serve as another barrier to entry into another field for women and minorities, then they probably need to be reevaluated. That’s something we can fix.
It’s not about making things easier (the patent bar exam has a pass rate of 48%). It’s about leveling the playing field, modernization, and breaking down arbitrary barriers.
I’d like to thank all of our signatories once more for supporting this immensely important cause.
Bonus: My response letter to the USPTO after my second rejection.