[Today’s post is by a graduate of Gettysburg College who spent several years working in the patent field. Here she introduces the various opportunities that graduates with skills in Japanese and a variety of other fields can take advantage of to pursue successful careers in translation, government, law, business, and other areas.]
What can you do with a BA in Japanese? If you’re interested in law and have Japanese language abilities, the field of patent law might be good for you.
Japan is one of the top countries for patent filings, in fact number two in the world only after the United States according to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s report from 2013. As such, there is a need for people with Japanese language ability in the patent field around the world.
There are a lot of jobs within the patent field: secretaries, legal assistants, paralegals, patent attorneys, patent agents, patent examiners, and even patent translators. Today I’d like to give a brief introduction to working in this field to give you guidance on whether it might be a good fit for you.
So what is a patent?
As you may already know, a patent is a license of sorts, issued by the government to give exclusive right to an invention for a set period of time.
Patents are valid for 15-20 years depending on what kind of patent it is (Design Patent, Utility Patent, Biological Patent, etc.).
Before getting too serious or interviewing for any job in this field, be sure to spend a couple hours reading up on the different types of patents, the patent application process, and the differences between patents, trademarks, and copyrights.
Where do people in the patent field work?
Law firms? Government? Private companies? The answer is all of the above!
To put it simply, there are three major parties typically involved in getting a patent.
- The company, university, or individual applying for the patent
- The law firm submitting and defending the patent application
- The government Patent Office in charge of reviewing, rejecting and approving patents.
Some larger companies will have an in-house law department to do all the work from number 2, sometimes with international patents there will be two law firms involved in defending the patent application, and sometimes translators work freelance, so there is some variation. But typically you will work at one of these three organizations.
As for actual location, there are patent related jobs all around the world. The amount of available jobs will vary based on how active that country is in regards to producing patents (the top countries being the United States, Japan, China, and Germany). You may find that the jobs are often concentrated in areas near government patent offices. A quick Google search should be able to tell you where this would be in your country.
For Gettysburg College students and graduates [Editor’s note: The original poster and founders of this blog were Gettysburg Japanese Studies grads!], you might be interested to know that the main U.S. Patent Office is located in Virginia near Washington DC. So there are a lot of patent law related jobs in the Virginia-DC-Maryland area! There also seem to be a lot of patent translation firms based in New York City. So you may not have to travel far from Gettysburg to find some great job opportunities!
In the long run there is also a lot of potential to work from home in this field when you become more experienced. Senior level patent paralegals, examiners, translators, and attorneys can often find jobs where they can work from home most of the time (if not all of the time!). But as a beginner you’ll probably be commuting to an office every day.
What can you do in the patent world with a BA in Japanese?
Part 1: Patent paralegal, legal assistant, secretary
If you don’t have a technical background or a law background, you might think your only option in this field is “patent translator” but that is simply not the case!
As I mentioned before, Japan is one of the top patent filling countries in the world. To put it very simply, there is no such thing as a single “worldwide” patent, patents must be filled in each country individually. So Japanese companies are filing for thousands of patents all over the world every year. This means that there are many law firms outside of Japan that want employees who can read or speak Japanese, particularly for legal assistant, paralegal, and secretarial work.
In these kind of jobs you may find yourself using your Japanese abilities to double check the original Japanese documents when filing patent related paperwork, skim through and source Japanese Information Disclosure Statement (IDS) documents, help communicate with Japanese clients, translate or manage a Japanese website for your firm, translate English documents for the Japanese client, sort through and file Japanese faxes and emails, and other various things.
What you actually do day-to-day and how much you use your Japanese will vary greatly on the size of the law firm, how many Japanese clients they have, and what your specific position is. Typically larger firms will hire you for a very specific role while smaller firms may hire your for a more jack-of-all-trades kind of role.
You may also be interested to know that many Japanese law firms are interested in hiring English speakers to help with their international patent applications as well. You may be able to find a position in Japan, especially if you already have experience in the patent field in your home country!
What can you do in the patent world with a BA in Japanese?
Part 2: Patent translator
There’s a high demand for patent translation and it is relatively well paid. So what does it take to be a patent translator?
Patent translation means translating long technical documents.
To be able to do this, you need high level Japanese language abilities and either a specific technical background (such as the sciences, engineering, medical, etc) or a willingness to do research on topics you cover and become a specialist. Patent translators have great language abilities and are specialists that know a lot about a couple fields.
Even with a technical background, there will be times when you will need to do a little extra research on the side. You need to be willing to ask questions and really dig deep into your assigned material.
Another skill useful to have is a basic understanding of patents and how patent prosecution works. The good news is that you have a lot of resources for studying this for free online.
The WIPO’s online search lets you search (http://patentscope.wipo.int/search/en/search.jsf) through millions of patents for free and you can download PDFs of them in multiple languages. This can be a great way to get a feel for the structure and vocabulary used in patents in the language you’re translating too.
As a patent translator, one of the biggest things about patent prosecution to remember is that details count. The details mean everything! Details are the difference between a bike screw that Kawasaki patented and a treadmill screw Panasonic patented. If the Japanese says “right triangle” then “triangular” is not a clear and detailed translation. If the Japanese says “ridged” then “bumpy” may not be the best way to describe it. These may be “small” mistakes, and they may be understandable, but if it becomes a point of dispute with the patent examiner it can cost both the law firm and the inventor time, energy, and money.
If you have great Japanese abilities, excellent attention to detail, good time management, and love to learn, patent translation may be an appealing job for you. Patent translators may work in-house at a big company or law firm, or freelance. If you are just starting out I recommend you try to find a junior or assistant translator in-house position so you can learn from those more experienced in the field.
The great thing about patent translation is that there is always a need for more good patent translators. It requires a lot of research and specialization and may not be as glamorous as other types of translation, but you’ll always be able to find work.
What can you do in the patent world with a BS or other technical degree… AND Japanese?
Part 3: Patent attorney, patent agent, patent examiner
While legal assistant, paralegal, or translation work is still an option, if you have a technical background I think you may be more interested in a job as a patent attorney, patent agent, or a patent examiner.
A patent attorney or patent agent is a lawyer who defends a patent application against a patent examiner.
Basically, patent examiners work for the government and examine all patent applications. If they do not think the patent application is a brand new invention, they write an Office Action to the lawyer, explaining why they are rejecting the patent application. The lawyer then rights back, defending why the patent application is a new invention and why they believe it deserves a patent. This is sometimes resolved right away, and other times they will argue and discuss the patent application for months or even years before coming to a conclusion.
As a patent examiner, you can utilize Japanese language ability by reviewing or researching related inventions in Japanese. Also if you are an examiner in the United States you will also most likely have a chance to befriend Japanese patent examiners from the Japan Patent Office (JPO) or Japanese patent attorneys that often do training or exchange programs with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
As a patent attorney or patent agent, you can utilize Japanese language ability by reviewing or researching related inventions in Japanese like an examiner would, and you can also work for a law firm (or one day start your own law firm) that has Japanese clients or specializes in helping Japanese companies.
If you have a scientific, engineering, or medical background you may already be qualified to be a patent examiner, and with some studying and passing the patent law bar you also have the chance to become a patent agent. If you are interested in this type of work I highly recommend you search further online as well as ask friends and family or classmates and former professors if they know anyone in this field you could chat with about it!
For current students working towards a degree in Japanese
Other subjects to study if you’re interested in the patent world
As I mentioned in the last point, if you want to be a lawyer, patent examiner, or patent translator you should definitely considering choosing a technical fields to study. The majority of patents are related to engineering, science, and medical fields.
If you are considering more of a paralegal or legal assistant job, general law or paralegal courses may give you a nice background and check out if your university offers any courses on patents or intellectual property.
So you’re interested!
Before signing up to go back to school for a new degree, taking a night class in paralegal studies, or buying a book to study for the patent bar, if you already have a four year degree (like a BA in Japanese J) I suggest you go ahead and try to get a job at a patent law firm.
Working as a legal assistant or a junior translator you will get to see what it’s really like working in the field day-to-day and get an understanding of what roles different people play. This is a great way to test the waters and see if it’s a career right for you.
If you are still a student, you may even be able to find firms that offer summer internships for secretarial or assistant roles. Even if this is at a firm that doesn’t Japanese, it could be a great way for you to get a look into this field so I highly recommend it.
Are you cut out for the patent world?
Things to know beforehand: The Good and the Bad
Whether you want to be a patent lawyer, paralegal, patent examiner, or patent translator, the patent world requires a lot specialization, repetition, paperwork, high attention to detail, flawless time management, and will mean working alone in front of a computer most of the time. To some people these things are appealing. To others, it may sound like a nightmare.
I’m not trying to scare you away, but working with patents is often very tedious and rushed, but yet even small mistakes and typos can cost hundreds of dollars. There’s a lot of pressure and not always a lot of rewards.
But the great thing about working in the patent world is you’ll get a much deeper understanding about the world around us: how products are made and patented, and what exactly that means. And even if the paperwork you do is the same everyday– the content will be different. You will constantly be running into concepts and ideas you may have never heard of before, there’s always something new to learn in the patent world.
Start your search!
Where to look for patent related jobs
Good news, you should be able to find postings for patent related jobs on any major job listing site! You can find them in old fashioned places like newspapers and Craigslist as well. Run a search for terms you’re interested in (such as legal assistant, secretary, paralegal, translator, etc) plus “patent” and “Japanese” and see what comes up. Sign up for email updates on any sites you can and keep your eyes peeled! New jobs are posted regularly in this field so you should check back frequently.
Be aware that there are many temporary or contract positions in this field, so you will probably see those job postings as well. But this could be a great way to get experience and figure out if you like the field though so I wouldn’t cross temp work off your list of places to apply!
Also although many positions may say they require bilingual or native Japanese speakers, if you see a job that interests you and you have JLPT 1 or 2 level Japanese I would go ahead and apply or ask for details about how you will be required to use Japanese in the position. JLPT 1 or 2 may be more than enough. I have met many people with limited Japanese ability who were filling positions that required Japanese. It doesn’t hurt to ask! J
Basic Sites to Get Started Looking at Patents
United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO): http://www.uspto.gov/
Great for overviews about how to apply for a patents or trademarks.
A Day in the Life of a Patent Examiner (USPTO): http://careers.uspto.gov/Pages/PEPositions/video.aspx
A promotional video explaining what it’s like to work as a patent examiner.
Japan Patent Office (JPO):
Good for news about what the JPO is doing, and some detailed reading on their application process.
An easy to use resource for search and viewing patents.
World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Patent Search:
A more advanced way to search and view patents.
Good luck to everyone!