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.
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.