Volunteer Opportunities for IP Professionals

Guest Post by Tasha Francis, PhD. Tasha is a law student at the University of Michigan expecting to graduate with a J.D. later this spring.


One common way in which lawyers give back to their community is via pro bono work. In the pro bono world, a transactional lawyer typically has a general skillset allowing him or her to cover a variety of general corporate areas for a pro bono client even if the specific question at hand does not fall directly in the lawyer's field of practice. Similarly, litigators, who have experience in the courtroom, are equipped to handle a variety of cases brought by pro bono clients, such as small-claims court matters, housing, harassment, or immigration issues. However, patent prosecutors and in-house counsel who might specialize in interacting with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), may not feel equipped to meet in the more common litigation or transactional needs of typical pro bono clients. Thus, it may not seem obvious to these attorneys how they can use their skill set to give back to the community. This article identifies a few ways in which intellectual property professionals can use their abilities to enhance their community.

Pro-bono opportunities

The Model Rules of the American Bar Association request lawyers to perform fifty hours of pro bono work per year. Lawyers can fulfill this responsibility by providing free legal services to persons of limited means or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations.

One way in which intellectual property (IP) lawyers can fulfill their pro bono hours is by getting involved with local charities and helping them with their IP needs- for example, assisting them with the filing of a trademark for their organization. As patent prosecutors have familiarity with the USPTO, this would be an ideal way to help the community. Alternatively, IP lawyers can volunteer for organizations like Lawyers for the Creative Arts or Springboard for the Arts, which provide pro bono legal assistance to clients working in the areas of art, culture, media, and entertainment, including the visual, literary, and performing arts. Example projects include working with artists on copyright, trademark, or general contract issues.

For those IP lawyers interested in writing patents for under-resourced inventors and small businesses pro bono, the USPTO launched a pilot program in Minnesota last year to provide legal services to help such individuals and businesses obtain solid patent protection.  Based on the success of the Minnesota program, the USPTO has instituted five new regional pro bono programs in Denver, California, Texas, Washington D.C. and New York City. 

Other volunteer opportunities that qualify for pro-bono hours, include serving on bar association committees or on boards of pro-bono or legal services programs, taking part in Law Day activities, acting as a mediator or arbitrator, and engaging in legislative lobbying to improve the law. Additionally, pro-bono hours can be accrued by acting as a continuing legal education instructor. Now is an excellent time to teach your colleagues about the changes to the patent laws that recently occurred with the America Invents Act, for example.

Finally, there are a number of pro-bono intellectual property clinics emerging in law schools around the country, such as the Entrepreneurship Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Lawyers can serve as mentors to students participating in these programs and simultaneously fulfill their pro-bono goals.

Other ways to give back to the community

Aside from those pro-bono activities, there are other ways in which IP professionals can give back to members of the community.

For example, IP professionals interested in sharing their skills with children can team up with an elementary school class and help students gain exposure to intellectual property by helping the class enter the Intellectual Property Owner's Education Foundation video contest, which is a contest meant to teach children about the US patent system. Students submit video essays about why the patent system is important. Alternatively, the USPTO recently collaborated with the Girl Scouts to introduce a new intellectual property badge to educate Girl Scouts about inventorship and intellectual property. The USPTO and Girl Scouts are actively seeking intellectual property professionals to assist local troops in obtaining this badge.

IP professionals interested in working with older students can offer to speak with Ph.D. candidates in the science and engineering fields and explain the basics of patent law to them, so that if and when they invent something during their Ph.D. program they have an understanding of how the process works.

Furthermore, it is important to realize that knowledge about intellectual property is valuable outside of the classroom as well. For example, IP professionals could make themselves available to local inventors at forums in which they usually congregate. Examples include the local community wood and metal shop, or community meetings, such as The Ann Arbor New Tech Meetup, where entrepreneurs pitch their new business ideas. Forums such as these often contain many community members who would value basic information regarding intellectual property. (And you never know- one of those people sitting in the audience may eventually come to you with work in the future).

So even though it might not be obvious how your skills as an intellectual property professional are valuable to your local community, the above mentioned should serve as a spring board for ways in which you can give back to your community.

33 thoughts on “Volunteer Opportunities for IP Professionals

  1. Absolutely. Witness: AIA.

    Attack in any way possible. In every way possible.

    Do I need to hold your hand for a tutorial on combat methodology too?

  2. the Right (Big Corp, who would rather not compete on innovation, but rather on other market factors that they hold dominion).

    And this is why the board of the Intellectual Property Owner’s Education Foundation is packed with BigCorp reps? So they can attack patents?

  3. +1

    As has been affirmed by the likes of Dr. Kevin Noonan (and validated by being attacked by Malcolm), the patent system is under attack by both the Left (academia and their general anti-property view) AND the Right (Big Corp, who would rather not compete on innovation, but rather on other market factors that they hold dominion).

    Strange bedfellows – but no less real dangers to the spirit of innovation that drove our founding fathers to explicitly call out the grant of power in the constitution (and place that power – not in the hands of the unaccountable judiciary, but in the hands of the legislature, who (ideally) would be accountable to the people.

  4. Commie, crony capitalist… no difference in my book. They both use the government to take money from others for their own benefit and are therefore trying to expand the government to take more money for their own benefit.

  5. Looks like GE is already on the move with this, see Quirky.com.

    Wow, bad joke ahead I guess GE is a company for commies.

  6. 1. Probably because the market would be so small that there is no benefit to compete in it.

    2. Others would like to see advancement in area where a broad patent exists.

    Aside, are you most of clients’ patent applications refer an actual planned product? Most of them are ideas that are selected to fill the prosecution budget.

    Finally, you obviously haven’t experienced the dearth of freely shared information such as tutorials, software code, instructions, how to’s etc… that solve many problems, many of which are indeed simple, yet patent-able.

  7. Why would anyone go to the trouble of manufacturing and creating a market for a product when someone else can then step in and compete in the market they created FOR FREE? LOL, silly commies.

  8. I would not consider this pro-bono work, maybe pure altruism. I’ve been mulling over the idea of a non-profit (e.g. 501C3) non-practicing entity that receives charitable donations to acquire patent licenses that can be used “pay what you can” model. Maybe require licensees to acknowledge that this product was brought to you buy the Public Patent Fund.

    I have found PubPat which, to me, is an interesting development. But from my (unsubstantial) research, it seems they are defending public domain innovations from being re-patented.

  9. I do a ton of “pro-bono” work on behalf of my patent attorney clients. It’s called weeding out the individual inventors.

    After getting the warning from my attorney client, I receive “the phone call” from the inventor. They explain their new spoon-fork combo or toothpaste dispensing toothbrush along with the comment that it’s not for sale at Walmart and therefore must be novel. Doing an “Examiner 6″ style search, I find three or four 102b references in less than five minutes. These are forwarded to the inventor with a note saying “No billable work has been done yet. Please review the attached and let me know if you would like me to proceed with your search which will cost an estimated $Nxx.”

    By crushing their dreams very early in the process, I save the individual inventor five years of anguish and associated cost attempting to secure a patent. I also save the attorney many hours of non-billable communications with a desperate individual inventor. I also save the law firm accounting department an hour or two of time trying to collect from an individual inventor. In exchange, I receive a soft warmth in my otherwise cold, dream-crushing heart.

  10. I will start doing IP-related volunteer work the minute my malpractice insurance doesn’t start backing away when I mention coverage for pro bono work. We know that small inventors are much more likely to sue for malpractice, we know that being a volunteer does not insulate you from liability, and liability cannot be effectively waived. So ask those attorneys who do pro bono work in the IP field, how do you handle the malpractice liability?

    My current pro bono time is in fee arbitration, which does insulate me nicely from malpractice issues, and also provides a valuable service to the public. It also teaches me about the types of behaviors that make unhappy clients mad enough to sue. I highly recommend participating in your local jurisdiction.

  11. McCracken…..reeeaaally?

    First, I am routinely taking home an eight-figure salary and if would have worked just little less, I could have taken a seven-figure one.

    Second, try to pitch your ideas to your plumber the next time pipes in your house burst or your toilet starts to deliver sewage contents to your washroom. Tell him that since he makes six-figures he must serve you for free. Please document and share your experience with us.

  12. Volunteer work for patent agents is a bad thing. Typically, a patent agent, at least in the biological sciences, works for minimal wage (or for less) as a graduate student performing research work in molecular biology, or in biochemistry, and then spends several more years as a “post-doctoral fellow” (still for minimal wage), until inspiration to acquire training in patent law arrives. For this scenario, which is not uncommon, it is the case that the patent agent has already performed at least ten years of “community service” by performing minimal wage academic laboratory research work. Why should the patent agent or attorney go without salary and without contributions to a retirement plan indefinitely? The notion that a patent attorney or agent, especially one with ten years of minimal wage academic research, should further perform free labor for others, is unethical.

  13. You poor thing! How terrible it must be to suffer the slings and arrows of society’s mild disapproval as you take home a six-figure salary! How unreasonable that people might suggest giving a little back to help the less fortunate! My heart goes out to these lawyers, it really does.

  14. No sweat – unless you are AAA JJ and love to make a jab at something unrelated to the content of a post that doesn’t matter.

  15. I don’t know. I’ve not spent a lot of time on that planet.

    They have a tiny sun so it stays cold most of the year.

  16. My IT skills are not good enough to know how it happened, that the machine declined me three times but nevertheless posted me three times. Sorry about that people.

  17. I might still have my badge (acquired when I was all of 8 years old) for skilfully boiling an egg and the one for skilfully making a pot of tea. But the very idea of a badge for getting skilled up in IP rights leaves me falling about laughing. Thank you IPO EF, thank you Tasha, and special thanks to MM, for bringing us so humorously a dose of sad reality, by turning the appalling Ayn Rand into a good joke.

  18. I might still have my badge (acquired when I was all of 8 years old) for skilfully boiling an egg and the one for skilfully making a pot of tea. But the very idea of a badge for getting skilled up in IP rights leaves me falling about laughing. Thank you IPO EF, thank you Tasha, and special thanks to MM, for bringing us so humorously a dose of sad reality, by turning the appalling Ayn Rand into a good joke.

  19. I might still have my badge (acquired when I was all of 8 years old) for skilfully boiling an egg and the one for skilfully making a pot of tea. But the very idea of a badge for getting skilled up in IP rights leaves me falling about laughing. Thank you IPO EF, thank you Tasha, and special thanks to MM, for bringing us so humorously a dose of sad reality, by turning the appalling Ayn Rand into a good joke.

  20. It seems “creepy” to me to set up a program to indoctrinate children about the IPO’s views of intellectual property.

    It’s a PR stunt. One of the guys in this men’s club probably has a wife/daughter who’s active in the organization at some relatively high level.

    There’s a badge for learning First Aid skills, a badge for learning how to fix a car… and a badge for learning about IP.

    Maybe the Federalist Society can award an Ayn Rand badge for identifying “government waste.”

  21. I guess I could have explained that a bit better. It seems “creepy” to me to set up a program to indoctrinate children about the IPO’s views of intellectual property. It seems a step beyond the (mostly) uncontroversially positive values one typically associates with girl scouts. There’s a badge for learning First Aid skills, a badge for learning how to fix a car… and a badge for learning about IP. Seems weird.

    The ASCAP tried to shake down Girl Scout troops for copyright royalties 20 years for singing campfire songs.

    link to nytimes.com

  22. I do not hear too much talk in the medical community about providing free services and giving time away for free.

    What planet do you live on?

  23. I do not hear too much talk in the medical community about providing free services and giving time away for free. In fact, public in general does not expect a doctor to give his or her services and time for free. However, the same public expects lawyers ALWAYS provide their services and time for free and the internet makes things only worse. Maybe we do not have to pay our bills?

    http://www.pinskylaw.ca

  24. Intellectual Property Owner’s Education Foundation

    Bunch of wealthy dudes want to start a non-profit to show “how much they care.” More like another excuse to hobnob and, yes, pat each other on the back at a fancy party once a year:

    After the close of the conference proceedings and as afternoon turns to evening a who’s who of the patent and innovation communities don black-ties (for the men) and elegant gowns (for the ladies).

    One of the highlights of the year in such circles is the awarding of the National Inventor of the Year Award at a dinner ceremony in Washington, DC. This year the Awards Ceremony was hosted at the old Patent Office building, which today houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. If you have never been to this venue it is, in my opinion, one of the finest venues in all of Washington, DC for such an event. Of course, the fact that it was a first class, extraordinarily well done event only added to the evening. The meal was a fabulous shrimp appetizer, followed by filet mignon and an incredibly rich chocolate cake and ice cream for desert. The wine flowed throughout the evening, and everyone had a great time…

    The fact that Kappos was the presenter allowed the IPO to sneak in a moment of appreciation for all that Kappos has done for the patent and innovation communities. For his efforts, and to say thank you, those in attendance gave Director Kappos a standing ovation.

    Kappos is on the IPOEF board (surprise!). The other “luminaries” can be viewed here.

    link to ipoef.org

  25. For example, IP professionals interested in sharing their skills with children can team up with an elementary school class and help students gain exposure to intellectual property by helping the class enter the Intellectual Property Owner’s Education Foundation video contest, which is a contest meant to teach children about the US patent system. Students submit video essays about why the patent system is important. Alternatively, the USPTO recently collaborated with the Girl Scouts to introduce a new intellectual property badge to educate Girl Scouts about inventorship and intellectual property. The USPTO and Girl Scouts are actively seeking intellectual property professionals to assist local troops in obtaining this badge.

    This is kinda creepy.

  26. Write patents for free to help someone else make money? No thanks. Maybe when someone starts mowing my yard because my lawn mower is less capable.

    I help charities with trademarks, but patents? No.

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