We received a request to discuss the titles and names used by Examiners, attorneys, and guests during interviews at the USPTO. It’s an area in which we heard some complaints. So, let’s consider it.
Examiners have earned high levels of respect. Therefore, we suggest referring to Examiners in writing as “Mr. ○○,” “Ms. ○○,” or “Examiner ○○.” This level of respect is consistent with how judges refer to Examiners in written court decisions.
It seems overly formal to refer to Examiners as “Mr.” or “Ms.” within the collaborative context of an interview. Therefore, during interviews, we prefer referring to Examiners as “Examiner ○○.”
Eschewing “Mr.” and “Ms.” during interviews also seems appropriate, in view of the age of most Examiners and prosecuting attorneys. According to a post on intelproplaw.com (site currently unavailable; archived on google.com), it appears the average tenure of a USPTO Examiner is slightly over 10 years. Considering the USPTO often recruits at undergraduate career fairs, it seems reasonable to assume most Examiners are under 35 years old.
Further, most prosecuting attorneys are under the age of 60. So, it seems a little stuffy for someone under the age of 60 to refer orally to someone under the age of 35 as “Mr.” or “Ms.” (At age 35, your author still often used the line, “Mr. Epstein is my father; I’m Brian.”)
Turning to other options, it is impersonal to refer directly to an Examiner only by their title, that is, as “Examiner.” On the other hand, it can be too personal to refer directly to an Examiner only by their first name, unless they suggest it.
Switching to attorneys, it is a little awkward to be called “Attorney ○○.” As was the case with Examiners, it is impersonal to refer to someone only by title, i.e., “Attorney.” Generally, the formulation of “Mr. ○○” or “Ms. ○○” is appropriate for attorneys. Of course, individuals might accept or prefer a first-name basis: your author has never corrected an Examiner that calls him “Brian.”
During the interview, it is the responsibility of the attorney to introduce any guests by their appropriate name. The reason is the Examiner simply will follow the lead of the attorney. For example, if an attending inventor has a PhD, then the attorney should introduce the inventor as “Doctor ○○”: the Examiner cannot guess what credentials a guest might have.
On the other hand, the Examiner might know the inventor has a recognized title. In this case, expect the Examiner to refer to the inventor accordingly, unless the representative introduces the inventor otherwise (e.g., “This is Barry, the first named inventor.”). So, this topic of names should be raised by the attorney with the guest ahead of the interview.
What about the specific case of Japanese guests? In this case, there is the convenient honorific “-san.” This honorific has been well-known in the United States for at least 35 years. So, Americans generally have no problem being called ““○○-san.” We also generally know to refer to Japanese guests as “-san.” So, our recommendation is for Japanese guests to refer to the Examiner as “○○-san.” We also suggest allowing the attorney and Examiner to refer to the Japanese guest as “○○-san.” The honorific is egalitarian and respectful. It also serves as a gentle reminder to the Examiner to slow down their speech, because a non-native English-speaker is present.
Of course, everyone has their own preferences. For example, the advice here is a bit conservative: Examiners increasingly seem to prefer operating on a first-name basis.