What’s in a name?

Name and contact-information is available for registered US patent attorneys.  This weekend, I took a quick look at that database and compared it to US census data. You see lots of law firms with odd names headlining the banner, and I wanted to see whether attorneys with uncommon names were rising to the top — or, instead, if patent attorneys just have uncommon names.  I also wanted to see whether the rate of various names could help us deduce anything about minority representation before the PTO

Wider Distribution of Names: In the general American population, 20% of the population is represented by the top 115 surnames.  For patent attorneys, however, it takes the top 245 surnames to reach the 20% mark.  More generally, the data does show that patent attorneys are more likely to have uncommon names as compared to the US population.

Here’s a look at the top-twenty surnames of patent attorneys. You can see eight of the top-twenty PTO names do not fit within the US Population top-twenty.  These are Lee, Kim, Chen, Murphy, Nguyen, Young, Wang, and Cohen.


On the other side, names that are severely underrepresented include Garcia, Martinez, Rodriguez, and Hernandez.


  • I used the 1990 census data because 2000 census names have not been released yet.


35 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. 35

    Ms. Kelly, this is a continuation of my previous posting at 12:09 AM. If you know anyone who fits the description previously mentioned and who is looking to make a career move please contact me and/or forward my email address: bbcoghlan@gmail.com. Thanks!

  2. 34

    Ms. Kelly, I am currently searching for a female African/American Patent Attorney with an EE background who is interested in practicing intellectual property transaction work, including licenses, due diligence, patent, trademark, and copyright applications and prosecution before respective government agencies, investigations, opinions, and client counseling.

  3. 28

    I am a black/african american female patent attorney. I am curious as to how many black females are registered as agents or attorneys? Any suggestions as to where to look?

  4. 27

    I doubt patent attorneys names reflect the distribution in sciences. In the company I work at I think most of the scientist are not originally from the US while at the patent bar exam course I just took, almost everyone was clearly at least 1st generation American.

  5. 26

    Two notes to Joe, firstly, Swedish names typically have two “s”, e.g. Eriksson, Svensson, Johansson, and you’d be hard pressed to find a Swede in Sweden with the name Thomason, so I would say having one “s” is already an indication of spelling change at Ellis Island.

    Secondly, you write:
    “An ethnic group may be under represented among attorneys or among doctors or other demanding occupations because its members place a large value on family and friends and emphasize enjoying the here and now rather than working for an uncertain future.”

    That is one of the more outlandish explanations I have heard in quite some time, less a rant than a preposterous hypothesis. It is popular belief that those with Jewish background are over-represented in the legal and medical field. Is this because Jews place less value on friends and family?

    Thus, according to your hypothesis, any ethnic group, indeed any individual, who has achieved success in any demanding profession is not to be considered family oriented. Let’s hear it for the underachievers.

    As to “working for an uncertain future”, yes, on a daily basis on the way to work, I have to step over law and medical school graduates sitting on the sidewalks begging for handouts.

  6. 25

    As Mike Brown and Mr Thomason point out, many names were changed at Ellis Island. Moreover, even now immigrants still get an opportunity to change names if and when they become citizens. Hence a Nowegian ‘sen’ becomes a ‘son’, Braun becomes Brown (pronounced exactly the same AFAIK), etc.

    The classic example is the much higher frequency of the name Miller in the US than in England, the usual explanation being that most of them have German ancestors called Mueller (also written with two dots, aka an ‘umlaut’ over the u instead of the first e, but that’s not even regarded as a different spelling in German).

  7. 24

    Note to Smith about proper spelling of Scandinavian names. After the registrar at Ellis Island misspelled the immigrant’s surname, the man remarked “that’s not how my name is spelled,” and the registrar replied, “now it is.”

  8. 23

    “Those with good reputations will find it relatively easier to obtain patents while those with bad reputations will find it harder.”

    I understand that many courts are the same: once you’ve burned the judge once, good luck ever having an application slide through without rigorous examination.

  9. 22

    Next stop: Affirmative action for patent applicants. Should certain inventors be eligible for patents based on a lower standard of patentability?

    Answer: According to hearsay, this is already the case. Certain companies and attorneys have reputations within the PTO. Those with good reputations will find it relatively easier to obtain patents while those with bad reputations will find it harder.

  10. 21

    “Well, I’m the only Thomason on the USPTO roster – why so few Norwegians?”

    Thomason is probably a Swedish name. Norwegians and Danes usually use “sen” rather than “son”

    The problem with looking at the representation of ethnic groups in various categories is that if you start down that road you have to be ready for what you find at the end of it. If there are cultural differences between ethnic groups which matter (and most left wingers adamantly insist there are) then those differences would affect fundamental values like: the priority you give to rational / scientific education; the balance you draw between the roles of reason and emotion; the value you place on family or enjoying life or material success and the trade-offs you choose among them; and your personal discount rate (the measure of your willingness to defer gratification).

    An ethnic group may be under represented among attorneys or among doctors or other demanding occupations because its members place a large value on family and friends and emphasize enjoying the here and now rather than working for an uncertain future.

    End of rant.

  11. 20

    If a group is “under-represented” this implies the existance of an ideal representation. In a subsequent column, could you give the ideal quotas for ethnicity, sex and race please.



  12. 17

    I suspect the name distribution among patent attorneys roughly statistically correlates with name distribution in the sciences, assuming that individuals who started in the siences and gravitated to patent law are randomly distributed.

  13. 15

    Plenty of Fishes in the firms, but no firm called Johnson, Brown and Smith. JBS has a nice ring to it. Could have a double meaning, like jurisprudence…uh, never mind.

  14. 14

    After subscribing for several months and enjoying your column, this one clanged dully.
    Not your typical well-honed question, and as such does not support much reasoned analysis.

  15. 13

    No president since Calvin Coolidge has had a surname ending in a vowel,” Billie Boyd said in reference to Barack Obama. “In fact, there have only been four in American history: James Monroe, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Coolidge. All e’s. See link to knoxnews.com In follow up of this, how about a study comparing the percentage of patent practitioner surnames ending in a vowel employed at large law firms vs. percentage of patent practitioner surnames, like Crouch, ending in a consonant employed at large law firms?

  16. 12

    Hmmm… so only Smiths, Johnsons and we Browns managed to place within one of the proportion in the population? Interesting.

    I’ve often wondered what the proportion of these names in the population would be if the immigration officers at Ellis Island hadn’t been predominantly British (English, Scottish and Irish, mostly) at the end of the 19th century. There were an awful lot of families like mine that got on the boat somewhere in Eastern Europe with one surname and landed on Manhattan Island after immigration processing with another. Asian and Hispanic immigrants seem to have been more successful at keeping their original surnames at their ports of entry. How many Sanchez or Nguyens would have become Smiths or Browns had they had to go through 19th century Ellis Island?

  17. 11

    I think that many patent law firms are keen to hire asians in order to bring in business from that part of the world.

    I also beleive it’s a mistake to think that the first generation always lack language skills. This may be more often true where the first generation were blue collar workers in their own country, but much less true where they were professionals.

    In the Washington DC area where the PTO is located, and hence where 200+ patent law firms can also be found, most technical work available is defence work and restricted to American citizens only, leading many technically qualified immigrants into fields such as patent law in order to make a living using their qualifications. Of course, you have to be a citizen to become an examiner too, but not if you want to be a patent agent or a patent attorney.

    As for the surname Lee, as an Englishman I can say that this name is mostly associated with gypsies (or Romanies, as they prefer to be called) in my country, or at least people descended from them. Whether this applies to Robert E. Lee I really don’t know.

    I would guess that most African Americans called Lee would be descended from the slaves of whites of that name, including those of Robert E. Lee. This is why when I come across other people having English surnames they usually turn out to be African Americans.

  18. 10

    In the spirit of “Freakonomics,” I conclude from these data that patent attorneys frequently change their names to something Asian-sounding, so that they can better communicate with Asian inventors. Where’s my MacArthur Genius award?

  19. 9

    I once tried to use the database to extract gender data. Wanted to see how the number of female agents compared to females in engineering, computer science, etc. compared. Soon realized that the task was impossible given the confounding of male-female names and my lack of knowledge about Asian names.

  20. 8


    Following Joe Smith’s suggestion, I would like say apply the same technique to inventor names. I imagine a reverse pattern might be found with regards to foreign names.

    However, there are obvious errors in such ethnographic analysis. While some names like Lee are bound to be over-represented, due to cultural reason; some might be unusually under-represented due to the inconsistancy in spelling of these names in English.

  21. 7

    I am not sure what benefit can be obtained from analyzing the names of registered practitioners in terms of their presumed ancestry and ethnic origin. I have never understood why anyone would expect the ethnic or gender-based components of a particular group (such as engineers or farmers or patent attorneys or professional athletes) to be exactly equal to that of the population at large, even assuming a perfectly race-blind society. More importantly, I have never understood why, in the ultimate quest to achieve a race-blind society, people are always injecting a discussion of race into areas (such as, in this case, patent law) in which race is as close to a non-issue as possible. If hispanic surnames are “underrepresented” does that mean we need government-subsidized programs to encourage hispanics to attend engineering school and THEN to become patent agents or attend law school to become patent attorneys? If that is the ultimate conclusion, then what does that say about the disproportionately large (“over-representation”) of Asians in the patent bar — does that mean we need to start discouraging Asians from becoming patent practitioners? Besides, what does surname tell you about the composition of our group when, for example, hispanic females can take the surname of their European-American husbands?

  22. 6

    Another thought. It is somewhat common for the children of attorneys to follow into that field, so it is not surprising that certain relatively uncommon names would become over represented in this field.

  23. 5

    This is quite interesting to me. It is not wholly surprising, as I agree with Joe Smith’s comments regarding immigrants and their children. I myself am a first-gen born American. With Asian immigrants in particular, their children are not surprisingly over-represented. My parents are Israeli, and I would guess that the children of Israeli immigrants (which is admittedly a very small sample size, so difficult to determine) would also be over-represented a bit compared with the general population. The same may go for Jewish people in general, because, like Asian cultures, the religion values book-learning and certain professions (teaching, law, medicine). I guess Hispanic immigrants’ children have not integrated at the rate that Asians’ have, but I imagine that there would be drastic changes were the same survey to be taken a generation or two from now. Very interesting, thanks!

  24. 4

    I’m not sure how you correct for it, but I don’t think the data you’ve collected is statistically helpful (yet). Here are several reasons:
    1. Attorneys are adults, census includes children

    2. As a corollary, if a surname is growing over time, its representation in the patent bar will be time delayed. Perhaps using the 1990 data corrects for this.

    3. Additionally, because census data includes families, but most families have only one patent attorney, then the percentages will be off. If all surnames had the same size family then this wouldn’t be a problem, but to the extent they don’t, you have to correct for that.

  25. 3

    I would be interested in the same analysis for Patent Examiners. Based on my experience Nguyen would be even higher among Examiner’s surnames (perhaps even first or second).

  26. 2

    Lee is an interesting name because the ethnicity is ambiguous – remember Robert E. Lee? A quick search on the web shows that Lee can be English, African American, Chinese or Korean so it is difficult to draw any conclusions from its presence.

    It is surely interesting to see Kim at number 7 and and even more interesting to see Nguyen at number 16. With immigrant groups it is my observation that the first generation do not become lawyers. It is the second generation who grew up in the US, and were educated in the US, who have the language skills and the opportunity to go to law achool.

    Nguyen (which I view as a quintessentially Vietnamese name along with Ng) at number 16 says to me that the Vietnamese refugees of the early 1970s have integrated faster and far more successfully than I had realized.

  27. 1

    Hmm. Let’s make things more complicated. What about women who registered under an uncommon maiden name and subsequently reregistered under a more common married name? Or vice versa?

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