What does a patent agent do?
A patent agent is cheaper than a patent lawyer, and that may be one reason to employ one if your budget is tight. But they can't do everything the latter can. The laws on this are quite detailed in the US . For one thing, your agent can't represent your application in court: only a lawyer registered with the US patent office (USPTO) can do that. Although an agent can prepare your application for you, it's usually not advisable for anyone but a lawyer trained in intellectual property rights to draw up your claim - it's essential that it is worded to cover every possible infringement.
But there are lots of things a patent agent can do. They can help you with the initial search to see whether your invention is new in a legal sense and advise you on whether it is viable for a patent application. A good agent will also be able to advise you on whether you should to apply for a patent or not - this process is not suitable for every innovation or business. He or she will also be able to represent you through the application, although they can't go to court for you.
Just as with a patent lawyer, it's essential to make sure your agent is qualified in the specialist field of patenting. In the US this will mean that he or she is USPTO accredited, which in turn means that they have a technical/scientific background and have passed examinations on the patenting process. The best way to hire an agent or a lawyer is by word of mouth recommendation from someone you trust, but there are other ways, such as the list on the USPTO website (www.uspto.gov). Wherever you find your agent, make sure that they have reliable references and ask them about their experience and background when you meet them. Also check what will happen if you want to stop the procedure or take on alternative professional help, for example to draw up your claim. Remember that a good patent agent or lawyer won't try to convince you to embark on the patenting procedure but will advise you on whether it is suitable for you. Note however that patent agents can give you a costing of the patenting process but they can't advise you in depth about alternatives.