The Idiosyncrasy of Patent Examiners: The Effects of Experience and Attrition

Patents and Intellectual Property

Article Snapshot


Ronald J. Mann


Texas Law Review, Vol. 92, No. 7, pp. 2149-2178, 2014


The quality of patents in the United States might be declining. As a patent examiner gains experience, the quality of patents she grants falls. But the quality of patents granted by “careerist” patent examiners with a long tenure in office is much higher.

Policy Relevance

The patent office should recruit examiners intending to work at the patent office for a long time.

Main Points

  • “Tenure” is the total length of an examiner’s career; “experience” is the length of time she has already worked at the patent office.
  • “Short-timers” seeking only brief employment at the patent office act differently from “careerists,” who intend to remain.
  • The first patents granted by “careerists” include more claims, more references, and were issued faster than the first patents granted by short-timers.
    • Good examiners should weed out weak claims, reducing the number of claims.
    • Long examinations are undesirable, because other firms will file for patents on similar innovations, increasing conflicts over rights to the innovation.
  • Examination time for examiners with less than 5 years of experience is 58 days, but that of examiners with over 20 years of experience is 1,900 days. Claims and references also increase with experience.
  • Increasing tenure decreases claims from 17.4 for examiners who leave within five years, to 11.9 for those who stay more than 20 years.
    • Days in examination drops from 2000 to about 260.
    • References decrease from 16.1 to 8.9.
  • Examiners with PhDs spend a long time on examinations, suggested that the best examiners are those with the least education.
  • Examiners with JDs are likely to remain at the patent office for longer periods than examiners with PhDs.
  • Labor policies focused on retaining employees would encourage low-quality employees to stay, so the patent office should focus on recruiting high-quality “careerist” examiners.


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