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Margaret “Peggy” Focarino, USPTO: Making a new US patent system

With attrition rates at a 30-year low, the USPTO’s commissioner for patents is confident she’ll be able to retain the skilled professionals she’ll need to guide the Office effectively into a new era of patent law

Focarino aims to reduce patent pendency to 10 months by 2015

Peggy Focarino has four children, a husband and two Newfoundlands – but she still somehow finds time to make her own homemade wine ("all kinds except chardonnay; we don't like chardonnay", says the USPTO's commissioner for patents). And it's lucky that she likes being kept busy, because Focarino also happens to be in charge of patent operations during one of the most crucial transitions in the US patent system since its inception.

In addition to hiring 1,500 patent examiners by the start of the new fiscal year and analysing comments on 20 different provisions of the America Invents Act before promulgating final rules for each, Focarino will be participating in road shows, opening the USPTO's first satellite office in Detroit, continuing to whittle down the backlog of patent applications and attempting to give examiners clearer guidance on patentable subject matter after Mayo v Prometheus – and much of that must be done by September this year or sooner.

As head of patents, one of Focarino's key responsibilities will be making sure the Detroit office gets off to a good start. The Elijah J McCoy satellite patent office will be the test case for three additional satellite offices to be opened by 2014 in Dallas, San Jose and Denver. The expansion means there will be USPTO facilities in each of the four major US time zones. "This is a great opportunity," says Focarino.

"Examiners are leaving the Office at a lower rate than any time in the last 30 years"

Hiring in Detroit was easy – "the response was overwhelming" – but at the main headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia things have been a bit tougher. Because of changes made by the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to the USPTO's hiring authority, it hasn't been as easy for the Office to reach recent college graduates, which has made it more difficult to generate a qualified list of applicants. But Focarino says the Office is now around that bend. "We've hired 1,100 examiners so far this year and the goal is 1,500, so I'm pretty confident we're going to meet that," she says.

Those hires will go a long way toward reducing the backlog and decreasing pendency (the goal is 10 months to a first action by 2015), as will continuing to reduce the attrition rate. According to Focarino, examiners are leaving the Office at a lower rate (3.3%) than any time in the last 30 years, which means that "7,300 examiners are getting more and more experience". Attrition rates have been as high as 14% in 2000 and as low as 4.6% in 1982, according to the Office.

But Focarino's focus in the post-AIA era will for the first time be on more than just administrative matters, and this may be how her role will change the most. "My career has been very operations-focused to this point, so I think just being able to deal with the stakeholder community, which has a whole range of interests, and making sure to have interactions with everyone and strike the right balance is something new."

Seven things you should know about the Detroit USPTO
  1. Experienced examiners: All of the examiners in Detroit have IP experience. Some are former examiners, while others have been practising in law firms. All have at least one year of patent prosecution experience. “It’s a total paradigm shift for us to be able to start this effort with employees who have intimate knowledge of the Office,” says Focarino.
  2. Telework: Detroit examiners will be eligible to work remotely under the Office’s telework programme after two years of service. However, according to Focarino that could change: “That threshold for eligibility could change for people who have experience – they may be able to work remotely sooner.”
  3. Specialisation: The Detroit office will handle only electrical and mechanical patent applications. “The lowest growth overall is in the chemical area,” says Focarino. “It’s not where the greatest need is.” But that isn’t set in stone either. “We always look at what’s happening and adjust hiring as necessary.”
  4. Board of Appeals: There will be 11 administrative law judges in Detroit. That is up from the projected six the USPTO initially planned to hire. “The response to the vacancy announcement was overwhelming,” says Focarino.
  5. Filing: All patent applications will continue to be filed through the main Alexandria office and randomly allocated to Detroit examiners, so Detroit area applicants still can’t necessarily count on meeting in person with the examiner handling their case. “However, there will be a public search facility present in Detroit for prior art searches and an interview room with video conferencing equipment to collaborate with examiners in Alexandria or Detroit, or remotely,” says Focarino.
  6. Who’s in charge: Long-time supervisory patent examiner Robin Evans will be in charge of administrative operations in Detroit, but examiners will be trained and managed by SPEs in Alexandria, and still report to Focarino and Kappos.
  7. Training: Training will largely be conducted remotely. “There will be on-site management and training, but also virtual connection with the supervisors in Alexandria,” says Focarino. “A lot of the training will be done via webcasts with training in Alexandria.

Further reading:

The USPTO heads west to Texas, California and Colorado, July 2012
How the USPTO’s Detroit Patent Office will work, June 2012
USPTO execs address America Invents Act concerns, February 2012
Stoll retires as commissioner for patents, November 2011

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