Tech savvy: Law student plans a career in patent prosecution

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

For a long time, Melissa Chapman didn’t feel the law was a viable career path.

How wrong she was.

While studying psychology and biology in undergrad at the Florida Institute of Technology, she was shocked to find how much she enjoyed a few introductory law classes. And during her master’s program in higher education at Eastern Michigan University, she worked part time in education—a field she viewed as a long-term career—while also working part time at the Dobrusin Law Firm in Pontiac, first as an intellectual property legal assistant and then as an IP law clerk.

“I quickly found myself enjoying the work at the law firm more and more,” she says. “I decided to continue working at the law firm after my master’s program to gain more exposure to the field and make sure I was confident in pursuing a law degree before investing in it.”

 Working at the Dobrusin Law Firm prior to law school sparked Chapman’s interest in intellectual property.

“The longer I stayed there, the more I found myself considering a career in IP,” she says. “I especially enjoyed that I wasn’t made to feel like I was just doing a task as a legal assistant. The partners wanted me to learn and understand why certain forms needed to be filed or why something was done a particular way.

“Being in a field that is primarily male dominated, I think it was also important I started at an IP firm that had more female patent attorneys than males. The female partners all are successful attorneys active in both the legal and non-legal communities, and have thriving family lives. Without the presence of those female partners—who I now consider role models for my career—I don’t think I would have believed intellectual property was a viable path for me.”

A couple of years as a contract specialist in the IP department of Ford Global Technologies LLC ended in January, and she then spent four months as a corporate counsel intern at Tenneco.

“Working at an OEM was an experience I was also very fortunate to have,” she says. “The hands-on experience of drafting and negotiating contracts with both small, local companies, and large, multinational corporations was a fantastic opportunity for a law student. While taking many business law classes, I found the experience to be beneficial for seeing some key concepts in real-life, making them easier to learn and understand in class.”

When the pandemic began, Chapman became a part of Project Apollo, the moniker for Ford’s efforts to help with the manufacture and distribution of PPE and ventilators.

“I played a small role in helping to ensure appropriate agreements were in place for protecting and licensing intellectual property throughout the project.,” she says. “I was really proud to be at a company who shifted so much to be able to provide relief to our local communities.”

Since starting at the Troy firm of Fishman Stewart in February, her work has primarily focused on patent prosecution, reviewing and responding to office actions from the US Patent and Trademark Office and recently writing her first patent application.

“While I’ve worked with or adjacent to intellectual property for almost six years, this is the first time I’m actually doing any patent prosecution,” she says. “There’s been a large learning curve associated with it, but so far I’ve really enjoyed learning another aspect of intellectual property law and can see myself continuing to focus on patent prosecution in the future.”

Her favorite part of patent preparation and prosecution is that practitioners are constantly learning something new.

“You’re dealing with technology that may not be commercialized for another five years and you get to be on the forefront of it while helping companies protect their innovations,” she says.

Now in her final year at Wayne Law with graduation planned for December, Chapman has always had an interest in different sciences and technology.

“As a child I wanted to be a marine biologist, and in high school, I found myself fascinated with how things worked. I helped rebuild small engines like lawnmowers and even rebuilt an entire pick-up truck,” she says. “After years of not being sure what I wanted my career to look like, it all clicked when I realized I could pursue a career in law that also dealt with technology and learning how things worked.”

A member of the school’s Intellectual Property Association, she notes that going to law school with an interest in intellectual property is often a different experience than for other students.

“Many of us have full time jobs coming into law school, or we typically have to go about getting jobs differently than through the normal recruitment or on-campus interview processes,” she says. “Having an organization where we can talk about the nuances of our career interest is really important to our success, especially for those students who may not know people in the field already. Navigating the job process and advocating for more IP courses at Wayne has been much easier with a group supporting you.”

Going into patent law requires an additional exam no other area of law requires, she adds.

“The IP association has been very helpful for comparing prep courses, sharing practice exams, and just discussing our general experiences with studying for the exam. It’s a hard test, typically having below a 50 percent pass rate, so it’s been important to have other students to talk to and build up your confidence prior to taking it.”

Working full time throughout her time at Wayne Law, Chapman initially was drawn to the school by its evening and combined day/evening programs.

“As an IP focused student, there are a lot of skills not taught in school—having the ability to work full time in the IP industry throughout school has been a huge benefit for preparing me to practice after graduation,” she says.

Chapman serves as publication editor for the Journal of Business Law, the school’s newest Journal that she notes has a lot of potential for growth and change.

 “It’s been really exciting to see the Journal consistently increase in size, and most recently get approved for our permanent journal status by the student affairs committee,” she says.

“I also appreciate that we focus on topics specific to Michigan business law. While the other journals more often publish topics that have a broader reach, I find the narrow scope to be more practical for those who practice locally, especially with so many Wayne alumni remaining in the Metro Detroit area and Michigan after graduation. It’s a way for us to publish helpful articles, while also connecting with our local legal community who have been very supportive of our journal thus far.”

To further her interests in technology, as well as her career in Intellectual Property, Chapman took additional classes at Oakland Community College, in addition to her law school studies and working, to acquire the requisite credits to sit for the patent registration exam. Having now completed the additional courses she needed to sit for the USPTO registration exam, her short-term goals include passing the USPTO registration exam to become a patent agent, and then passing the state bar after her December graduation to officially become an attorney.

“I want to spend a few years prosecuting patent applications while helping both large companies and independent inventors gain patent rights for their inventions,” she says. “In the long term, I do see myself considering a role in-house. My experience in-house both at Ford and throughout my corporate counsel externship at Tenneco brought a new appreciation for the work done inside a company with building and monetizing a patent portfolio.” 

Chapman, who moved to MIchigan six years ago,  shares her home with two rescue dogs, Paisley and Levi.

“They are both tree-walking coonhounds and have a ton of energy, so I’m constantly playing with them or taking them for runs,” she says.

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