When Olivia Bedi first started out as an intellectual property attorney, her focus was more on succeeding in the field than on its need for more diversity.
“At the beginning of my career, I just wanted to keep my head down and work really hard to make it and wasn’t as aware of the lack of diversity, and how to help my peers or trying to stick together,” said Bedi.
In recent years, Bedi, now a partner at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, has joined forces with other attorneys of diverse backgrounds to create a support system and work toward making their voices, which are often underrepresented in the patent field, heard. Her efforts are part of a larger movement to encourage diversity among patent agents and attorneys.
Bedi’s decision not to address the lack of diversity in her field when she first started out was a conscious choice, which was reflected in her professional affiliations. “I think that I focused on IP organizations rather than Asian organizations because I didn’t want to be put into a minority bucket,” she said.
“It was more like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to do what I can do to survive, to make it up the associate ranks, to make it to partner. What do I need to do to do that?’”
Fewer than 22% of patent attorneys and agents registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office are women, a 2020 diversity and inclusion study led by the Virginia patent law firm Harrity & Harrity LLP found. Patent agents aren’t attorneys but can work on inventors’ patent applications.
The average number of PTO registrants who self-identify as belonging to racial minority groups has been around 6.5% over the past two decades, according to the study. It also found that there are more patent attorneys and agents named “Michael” than there are racially diverse women in those roles in the US.
Some law firms have launched recruitment programs to address the diversity shortfall, but progress in the patent bar is slow, and much work remains, practitioners say.
Diversity Deficit Across the Board
There has been a longstanding and well-documented lack of diversity in patent law at every level. Judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—the nation’s top patent court—have voiced their frustration at the homogeneity among counsel that appear at arguments.
Fewer than one-fifth of attorneys arguing in front of the Federal Circuit in 2021 were women, according to Bloomberg Law data. Women appeared on behalf of law firms 13.6% of the time and represented the government 47% of the time from May 2020 through December 2021. Only a handful were women of color.
Amy Semet, an intellectual property professor at the University of Buffalo School of Law, said that one of the biggest problems when it comes to encouraging diversity in the field is ensuring that people of diverse backgrounds are in put in places where they have room to make a difference.
It’s important to “not only have diverse teams but to give women and minorities important parts of that team—not just be the associates or the patent practitioners in the background,” said Semet.
Bedi, who is a member of the Richard Linn American Inn of Court, an organization that sponsors two $10,000 scholarships for intellectual property law students, said that the lack of representation in positions of power adds to the challenge of encouraging diversity.
“It’s a hard job,” she said. “It’s a hard career for everybody across the board, but particularly hard for people who don’t see people who look like them in the upper ranks.”
Push for Diversity Initiatives
Law firms and diversity support groups have been devising strategies to recruit diverse attorneys and agents.
Firm Perkins Coie launched a new patent agent training program in August to tackle the pipeline problem—a lack of women and minorities with the STEM degrees required to register as a patent attorney with the PTO.
The program provides training and support to recent college graduates to help them become qualified patent agents—and through law school to eventually practice as patent attorneys with Perkins Coie.
“The idea of having this kind of track where they can learn the industry, learn the rules, avoid the expenses of law school, and then come join the firm as a seasoned vet is sort of the idea behind the program,” said Drew Schulte, a partner at Perkins Coie leading the program.
Three out of the seven participants in the program are women, and five are of diverse backgrounds. One of the graduates was a summer participant who has returned to school, leaving six.
According to Schulte, who is a first-generation lawyer, the best way to successfully encourage diversity in IP is by speaking directly with people about the possibilities of the program and patent law.
“Because we kind of cast that wide net, and sit down to actually talk to people we discuss this career, it opens it up to a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds that never considered it or thought this was a potential career path,” he said.
Lois Lee, one of the program’s participants, said that diversity played a role in her decision to work with Perkins Coie. “Perkins definitely takes initiative to make sure we have diversity here,” she said. “When I was considering coming to Perkins I was considering the diversity factor as well.”
Other firms have set up their own programs to tackle the pipeline problem. Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner LLP also focuses on college students, inviting those in STEM fields to an “IP University” to be exposed to patent-related career options. The Patent Pipeline Program, launched by
The Foundation for Advancement of Diversity in IP Law has also expanded its scholar program since 2020, providing admissions and tuition support to more than 50 racially and ethnically diverse STEM-educated students to help prepare them for careers in patent law.
Despite the notable push to improve diversity in the patent field in the last five years, Semet said, it will still be a while before we see the fruits of that labor.
Bedi agrees. “If you look around the room, look around the firms, and look around the courtroom, we’re still very far off.”