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LegalCORP Inventor Assistance Program Team

Attorneys of the Year: LegalCORPS Inventor Assistance Program

Jay Erstling

Jay Erstling

Founded the first pro bono patent initiative in the U.S.

When Minneapolis-based LegalCORPS launched a pro bono legal services program to help low-income inventors navigate the U.S. patent system, the initiative was a first of its kind in the nation.

Where others had tried starting similar programs and failed, LegalCORPS’ Inventor Assistance Program caught fire. Since its debut in 2011, the program has become a national model on how to support and match up inventors with volunteer attorneys. To date, the IAP’s statistics: 15 patents issued to inventors, 33 currently active cases and a total of more than three dozen inventors/volunteer attorneys match-ups through its first 3½ years.

Further, collaborating with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the IAP’s pioneers have taken the initiative on the road, with the goal of covering all 50 states. They expect to hit that target this year.

IAP’s founding team includes Neil Meyer of Meyer & Njus; Mark Privratsky of Lindquist & Vennum; and Jim Patterson, Amy Salmela and Jay Erstling of Patterson Thuente IP. (Erstling is also a professor at William Mitchell College of Law.)

During the past year, the IAP logged several accomplishments, including formalizing and leading the American Invents Act Pro Bono Advisory Council, a group formed at the request of President Barack Obama. Patterson and Erstling serve on the advisory council’s steering committee while Salmela, Privratsky and Meyer are all on the council.

“We would like to think that at least partly motivated by our LegalCORPS efforts, Congress enacted Section 32 of the America Invents Act, which calls on the director of the Patent Trade Office to work with bar and IP (Intellectual Property) associations to establish and strengthen pro bono programs across the country,” Erstling said.

It also has formed a joint project agreement between the USPTO and William Mitchell College of Law whereby the school serves as a regional hub for patent pro bono programs, allowing inventors in Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas to connect with volunteer lawyers.

Erstling said the IAP benefited from the wisdom and insights of Candee Goodman, former pro bono coordinator at Lindquist & Vennum, and LegalCORPS’s willingness to take on IAP make it work, he said.

The genesis for the IAP goes back to 2010, when then-USPTO Director David Kappos was visiting William Mitchell to deliver the annual Patterson Thuente Lecture. Kappos told Patterson and Erstling that he had suggested the idea in a few other places, but that he had gotten no takers, Erstling recalled.

Kappos wanted to establish the program to get more quality inventions to market and overcome the generally poor quality of pro se patent submissions, Erstling said. When Kappos threw out the idea, Patterson immediately pledged to make it happen in Minnesota, Erstling recalled. “I was both eager and thrilled to be a part of it”.

With the help of Kevin Rhodes, 3M Co. chief intellectual property counsel, Patterson’s group and LegalCORPS began fundraising for the Inventor Assistance Program. The group raised pledges of more than $50,000, enough funding to cover four years of operations, he added.

And with IAP’s startup and operation have come great opportunities.

“The most rewarding part of working on this project for me has been how it has proven to have the ability to benefit everyone that is involved,” Privratsky said. Many strong relationships have arisen across the country as everyone works toward the same goal, he said.

And then there is the thrill of helping a client obtain the first patent for an invention, “My client’s enthusiasm and interest in the process were contagious, and it was so rewarding to see his patent issue,” Salmela said.

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