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Women in intellectual property law: First-hand insights

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Women have played a prominent role in the patent field since the 19th century. In 1809, Mary Kies, the first woman to be named an inventor on a patent, patented a method for weaving straw hats. Later in the same century, Florence King was the first practicing woman patent attorney. More recently, the last decade of the 20th century through the present has seen a dramatic increase in the number of women patent practitioners. During the last two decades, a career as a patent attorney has become a desirable alternative career to academic or industry jobs for women in science.

The biotechnology industry, and the recognition that certain man-made life forms were patentable subject matter, took off in the early 1980s, following the Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty. This decision held that a man-made biotechnological microorganism is patent eligible, thereby opening up a new field of patent-eligible subject matter. At the time of the decision, most patent attorneys had engineering and chemical backgrounds. The new field of biotechnology required a new area of expertise in molecular biology and other related biotechnology fields. For a variety of reasons, many of those with the expertise in this technology and the desire for an alternative career were, and are, women with advanced degrees in biotechnical fields.

To support the need for practitioners with this expertise, law firms established positions for scientists with technical expertise in the biological sciences to draft and prosecute patents. In addition, the U.S. Patent Office created new art units for biotechnology and hired many people with Ph.D. degrees as examiners. The law firms and the Patent Office provided compensation and support for attendance at law school.

The technical specialist and scientific adviser positions at law firms offer an entry-level prospect for scientists to transition into the field of patent law. Not only do these positions encourage patent law as an alternative scientific career, but they also ensure that clients are provided with the necessary scientific expertise to translate complex technologies into meaningful patent protection. Many attend law school part-time while working, thereby completing the cycle into the field of patent law. It is not unusual for a patent attorney associate to have gained several years of valuable experience in prosecuting patents prior to becoming a practicing patent attorney.

It is upon this model that the Life Sciences & Biotechnology patent group at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP nurtures expertise and is able to provide high-quality service to clients in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. The group of patent practitioners also are Ph.D. scientists, many of them women, trained in diverse areas including molecular biology, immunology, biochemistry, plant physiology and chemistry. The patent attorneys, agents and technical specialists work as a team to provide strategic development of patent portfolios for clients. Patent strategies include patent application drafting and prosecution, diligence reviews, opinions, strategic counseling and patent enforcement.

Through this expertise, the McKenna team provides valuable patent services to emerging, early stage and later stage companies in the bio-pharma area.

-Submitted by McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

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