Q: I recently received information regarding the patent and marketing of inventions from the Law Offices of [name of patent attorney omitted]. I found out about her through Entrepreneur magazine. I wanted to know if she is reputable to deal with. I'm currently a student with many ideas, and I want to know how to avoid trouble.

A: I've never heard of the attorney you mentioned. However, this means nothing as there are about 25,000 patent attorneys and agents (legal representatives) licensed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) so that no one person can know even a small fraction of them. To evaluate any patent legal representative, first check to see if the PTO licenses them. There's a full list of licensees on the PTO's Web site. You can look the attorney up by name. You can also find a list of other licensed attorneys in your area by entering your ZIP code, city or state.

Since the legal representative is an attorney (as opposed to a patent agent who can represent you before the PTO but not the courts), check with your state's bar association to see if this attorney is licensed to practice law in your state. Most states have an online list. For example, you can find California's list at www.calsb.org/MM/SBMBRSHP.HTM.

If the attorney has these two licenses (PTO and state), you should be safe, but frankly not all licensed attorneys are completely competent and honest. So I'd definitely go further and ask about her education, fees and experience as well as for some client references. Ask if she'll give you a free half-hour interview so you can get a feel for compatibility. If you decide to hire representative, avoid open-ended arrangements where the attorney bills you by the hour-always get a fixed price in advance for every job.

I'd also go to the PTO's patent manual database. Under "Query," type "LREP/," followed by the legal representative's name and you'll get a list of all patents this attorney has prepared. Take a look at some of the patents (you can download them from the PTO's site) and see what areas of technology the legal representative has experience in, whether the patents are written well and clearly, and how many she has done. Finally, search the Internet to see if the representative has a Web site. If so, look at it to get more insight.

You also noted this attorney also offers marketing services. This is extremely rare, as lawyers generally confine their activities to the law, which is more lucrative and certain. I would approach such an attorney with a bit of skepticism since an attorney who's a crack marketer is not likely to have a strong legal suit.

You also indicated that you're a student. If you've been born with a silver spoon, you may be able to afford a lawyer, but if you're like most students, you have enough of a challenge paying your tuition. If you can follow detailed instructions and write clearly, you can learn all you'll need to know and do most or all of the work yourself if you use my book, Patent It Yourself.

David Pressman, a practicing intellectual property attorney, is author of the bestselling bookPatent It Yourselfand the interactive software program Patent It Yourself, both published by Nolo Press. Formerly an electronic engineer, David has more than 30 years' experience in the patent profession-as a patent examiner, a columnist for EDN Magazine and a patent law instructor at San Francisco State University. Patent It Yourself can be obtained in bookstores (brick-and-mortar and online), from the publisher (www.nolo.com) and through David's Web site (www.PatentItYourself.com).


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.