The recipe for Coca-Cola. The Nike swoosh symbol. “Call Me Maybe.”
What do they all have in common? Well, besides some serious cultural clout, they’re all protected by intellectual property (IP) law in some way. And they’re a reminder that this unique legal specialty can take your career in many different and exciting directions.
What does intellectual property law cover?
It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of intellectual property law, because it covers such a wide range of human effort and creativity. Consider the formula for a new drug that lessens the effects of leukemia. Or the design for an efficient battery for electric cars. Or a new book or song. Or the slogan used in branding a business. Protecting these kinds of assets is the essence of intellectual property law.
Developing intellectual property may take years of work and often involves a hefty financial investment. The result, if things go well, can often be worth big bucks. For the person or business that makes this investment, it’s important to retain ownership of that property, even if it’s a matter of ideas or designs (rather than a tangible product).
That’s where IP lawyers come in.
What do IP lawyers do?
IP lawyers play a variety of critical roles related to the protection of intellectual property. In some capacities they act as advocates representing clients in court proceedings. They also serve as advisors, counseling clients about intellectual property matters.
Much of the work IP lawyers do is a far cry from the dramatic courtroom battles seen in movies and television. Rather, most spend time in offices and other locations where they review or produce important documents, conduct interviews, and complete painstaking analyses of often highly technical material.
One common task IP lawyers do is preparing documents needed to file for patents or trademarks, and then working with patent and trademark offices in the U.S. and around the world to attain those patents and trademarks. Another is representing a person or organization in dealings with others who are making unfair use of intellectual property. That may be as simple as composing a formal letter citing ownership of intellectual property and pointing out that it may not be used without permission. Or it may be as complex as filing a lawsuit and, if a settlement is not reached, going to court to resolve the matter. On the other hand, IP lawyers also help defend businesses and individuals against over-assertions of intellectual property by so-called “IP-bullies,” or brands and businesses that police their rights too aggressively.
IP lawyers may interpret laws and regulations for clients, conduct research used in preparing a variety of documents, and communicate both orally and in writing with clients and other legal professionals as well.
“One of the great things about IP law is how varied it is,” said Peter Karol, Professor of Law and Director of the Intellectual Property Law Certificate at New England Law | Boston. “When I was a full-time IP lawyer, I could spend a morning trying to help a winery protect its brand in Europe, and then the afternoon helping an artist respond to a cease and desist letter from a brand owner trying to censor that artist’s work.”
Just like the types of intellectual property vary, the employers of IP lawyers are equally diverse. They may be law firms, government agencies, and corporations, among many others, and IP lawyers may be employed in a variety of capacities (full-time, on retainer, etc.).
How to become an IP lawyer
Of course, successfully completing law school is a fundamental requirement for becoming a lawyer, regardless of the area of specialty. But what about your undergraduate studies? In order to be a patent lawyer who works to secure patents for inventors, students will be well served by an undergraduate science or engineering degree. That is not required, however, for other types of IP law (including IP litigation or entertainment, sports, copyright, or trademark law). Common undergraduate majors among non-patent IP law students include history, political science, sports or business management, English, art history, and economics.
If you're nearing completion of a bachelor's degree but had not previously planned on applying to law school, it’s not too late. The same is true of college grads. It’s quite common for law students to have spent time in the workplace, earned master’s degrees or a second bachelor’s, or completed stints in public service.
The American Bar Association recommends that anyone interested in a legal career (IP law or otherwise) seek educational, extracurricular, and life experiences that will assist you in developing certain key attributes, such as strong skills in analytical thinking, problem-solving, critical reading, writing and editing, oral communication, listening, and research. Other recommended skills and experiences include public service, promotion of justice, relationship building, and collaboration.
How do you acquire or develop these attributes? Hands-on, practical experiences like part-time or summer jobs, internships, and volunteer activities can provide invaluable skill-building opportunities. If you’re interested in becoming an intellectual property lawyer, seek out experiences that will expose you to that work. For example, intern with a law firm that specializes in intellectual property, an NCAA compliance group in your college’s athletic department, or an organization that’s active in seeking patents or trademarks. If such a direct connection to IP law is not available, any role that involves writing, research, or critical thinking could be worthwhile.
While in law school, you might take an intellectual property clinical course or join an IP law student group. You could participate in an IP law moot court/mock trial event as well, such as the Saul Lefkowitz Intellectual Property (Trademark Law) Competition.
Last but certainly not least, undergirding those experiential learning opportunities will be your law school course work. For the prospective IP lawyer, it’s a good idea to take as many intellectual property classes as possible. At several law schools (New England Law among them) you can even complete a concentration or certificate in IP law. This typically includes courses covering topics such as copyright law, patent law, trademarks, entertainment law, sports law, and intellectual property litigation.
For most people planning to practice law, including IP law, the JD is the standard degree. But some law school graduates go on to pursue other degrees or credentials requiring additional study, such as the Master of Laws (LLM) or the Doctor of Science of Law/Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD or SJD). Advanced degrees are generally pursued by those who hope to teach law or conduct scholarly research.
Rewards of becoming an IP lawyer
Becoming an IP lawyer takes a significant investment of time and effort, not to mention financial resources. But the result—a rewarding career in an in-demand legal specialty—can make it all worthwhile.
One of the most tangible benefits of a career in intellectual property law is the potential to earn an attractive salary. For lawyers in all fields, the median annual pay is approximately $120,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But Payscale reports the average annual salaries for IP lawyers in particular to be around $130,000, and Salary.com shows experienced IP attorneys earning significantly more—upwards of $200,000 annually, when factoring in bonuses, retirement, and health care. All that being said, attorneys’ salaries vary greatly by type of employer, professional experience, and region, with lawyers in urban areas usually earning the highest pay.
A side benefit to a career in IP law is the potential exposure to interesting new developments in science, technology, and other cutting-edge disciplines. For those with inquiring minds, intellectual property work can be particularly compelling. Developments in nanotechnology, self-driving vehicles, biotechnology, space exploration, drone technology, and scores of other trailblazing fields all involve intellectual property. IP attorneys may find themselves on the front lines of fascinating technological advances, or working with global brands, movies studios, music companies, athletes, or celebrities.
Learn more about becoming an IP lawyer
If you’d like to learn more about IP law, you might want to start by connecting with a lawyer with practice in the field; even an informal interview can be helpful. Your undergraduate college—or even law schools you’re considering—might be able to connect you with alumni and professors too.
Next, you can check out professional groups such as the American Intellectual Property Law Association. This organization, whose members include more than 14,000 legal professionals, offers helpful information not only for practicing lawyers but also students in or considering law school. Their resources include an overview of IP law as well as publications, conferences, and networking opportunities. They have a “Careers in IP Law” blog offering career advice for practicing lawyers that may be of interest to law students as well.
The American Bar Association also offers a wealth of info on IP law as well as legal careers in general. In addition to advice offered on their “Before the Bar” blog for law students, their IP law resources include a magazine, news bulletins, conferences, and books such as Careers in IP Law: Avenues and Opportunities, which offers real-world advice about becoming an intellectual property lawyer. It covers major practices areas, employment possibilities, and more.
As you learn about IP law through these or other avenues, it can be helpful to think about intellectual property in your everyday life. Whenever you watch a movie, download software, use your phone, or take advantage of any modern technology, the rights to the intellectual investment involved have been protected by lawyers. If you find such work appealing, perhaps a career in IP law could be right for you.
Learn more about our IP law program.