Concerns regarding low-quality patents and inconsistent decisions prompted Congress to enact the first major patent reform act in over sixty years and likewise spurred the Supreme Court to take a renewed interest in substantive patent law. Because little compelling empirical evidence exists as to what features affect the patent office’s granting behavior, policymakers have been trying to fix the patent system without understanding the root causes of its dysfunction.

This Article aims to fill at least part of this gap by examining one factor that may affect patent examiners’ grant rates throughout their tenures: the year in which they were hired by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). An examiner may develop a general examination “style” in the critical early stages of her career that persists even in the face of changes in application quality or patent allowance culture at the agency. To the extent initial hiring environments influence a newly hired examiner’s practice style, variations in such initial conditions suggest examiners of different hiring cohorts may follow distinct, enduring pathways with their examination practices. Consistent with this prediction, we find strong evidence that the year an examiner was hired has a lasting effect on her granting patterns over the course of her career. Moreover, we find that the variation in the granting patterns of different PTO cohorts aligns with observed fluctuations in the initial conditions faced by such cohorts. By documenting the existence of cohort effects and by demonstrating the importance of initial environments in explaining certain long-term outcomes, this analysis holds various implications for patent policy and the administrative state more generally.

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