I had someone at career services ask me to give advice to a fellow student on how to break into the IP scene with a weak background (physics minor).  Here’s my response:

I’m going to start with giving you my 2 cents and then answer your questions.  Remember that my advice is as good as you pay for it, so take everything I say with a healthy dose of checking out my reality with others.  Everyone who’s successful has an angle, and here’s my take (which may not be yours).  If I’m too blunt, please forgive my bluntness.  I want you to understand how your employer is thinking.  The key is to make yourself fit what he wants.  It’s not to tell him how great you are (you’re not great, you have potential).
Let me start by saying that there are 2 major factors to patent law employment according to the employers I’ve done informational interviews with:  field of study and experience.  Those are the qualifications, if you don’t meet those, you will have a difficult time getting in the door.  After that, everything else is about differentiation.  Field of study is very difficult to change, since it’s what you know and what you’ve studied.  We’re talking wisdom and years of knowledge, so its not easy to change.  Relevant experience is where you can make a difference right now.
With your minimal technical background, I would see if you can go clerk part time for free.  You’ll gain experience and training and exposure to good people in the know.  In exchange you’ll give your minimal services for free.  I’m told (and I believe) that new clerks cost more to train than they make.  You’ll be diverting time from someone who can bill $200-$250 an hour into a personal tutor in patent law and what to do.  For clerks that have the right technical background, law firms realize that this is how the new people get up to speed.  For your iffy background, you’re going to have to prove yourself.  This means:  passing the patent bar, clerking for free/credit and knowing the right people.  You have the ability to effect the first 2, while your fellow students can get you connected with the last one.
Ok, enough with the generals, let’s get onto your questions:
QUESTION:  I’ve been able to arrange to take the classes I need.

Pass the classes that allow you to sit for the patent bar and get done ASAP, so you can sit for the patent bar.  Like this summer, pass the classes and then pass the patent bar.
QUESTION:  Would an IP firm prefer to see actual letter grades when considering job candidates?

Of course, but that’s a differentiator.  Get experience as a patent law clerk and it’ll count more (I think).
QUESTION:  Do you have any suggestions on how best to market oneself to a patent law firm?

Pass the patent bar, get experience as a patent clerk and network with your IP classmates and IP lawyers.  You’re not going to get in w/o a recomendation by someone or great experience (think prestige rubbing off on you — like a harvard degree just says something w/o the grades).
QUESTION:  Is there a strong interest in IP firms for someone with a physics background?

It depends.  From what I see, patent firms cluster around several areas:  electrical, mechanical and chemical.  I would try and shoehorn yourself into the electrical category.  Chemical IP attorneys often have a masters or doctorate and mechanical patents are often seen as “easier” and simpler ones are given to chemical or electrical IP attorneys.  Whatever you do, don’t say you have experience in something you don’t know.  I think a bad employment experience is worse than no employment record (its a small world).
QUESTION:  I also have computer skills that may complement what I have to offer but no formal training that would show up on a resume.

The question is whether you can understand what’s under the hood of a new software invention.  Hacking html is different than understanding client-server methodologies or AJAX used in a novel way.  You need a base of experience before you can prosecute a patent and explain what’s novel.  So, if you’re comfortable with programming methodologies, then represent yourself as an experienced software programmer.  If not, mention that you have written web pages.
QUESTION:  What suggestions or recommendations can you give me on how to approach firms (especially for someone in my position), what to look for in an IP firm, etc.?

Approaching firms:

  1. Get the patent bar passed.
  2. Leverage your relationships to land a free (unpaid) clerking position, maybe add legitimacy through the school to get credit (employers are worried that free clerks are not motivated … show them they have power with school invovlement).
  3. Send cold-call letters that explain that you understand the weakness of your resume, but wish to prove your worth through an unpaid internship for the summer.

What to look for in an IP firm:

It depends.  Someone wrote that Law School was like a pie eating contest with the winner getting more pie.  That means that the most successful of us will go to large firms and have to bill a ton of hours while making loads of money.  Those of us who choose to live in reality, look to find a firm with more balance.  For your first unpaid internship, I would accept anything you get and work as hard as you can to be outstanding (and not just good).  Once you get that experience, you can then decide whether you want to make loads of money or balance your life.
Another clue is to do informal informational interviews with the people you work with.  Ask them what they do, what they like about what they do and what they’d avoid.  Oftentimes they’ll get specific and tell you what they think of the firm.  But asking about the firm directly often gets the standard positive response that will keep them on the partners good sides.

Do informational interviews with friends, law school classmates and even those you just have minimal ties with.  As long as you make sure that they know you are not applying for a job with them, they can tell you about firms in town.  I talked with a patent lawyer in IBM and got great information from her. 

QUESTION:  What would you suggest as a way to prepare myself for a future patent practice in the upcoming school year (taking into consideration that I am taking physics courses during the year already)?

Network, pass the physics classes, pass the patent bar, get experience.
QUESTION:  As a general proposition, do patent firms expect law school graduates to have already passed the patent bar exam?

I got bad advice about this and survived.  Passing the patent bar alleviates any fear that you will remain a technical consultant.  Just get it done.
QUESTION:  I think I would like to do patent prosecution rather than litigation, and right now I have a slight preference to practice in state but am definitely open and willing to job opportunities out of state as well.

Unless you are a different individual than most, I would suggest that you would like a variety of different tasks.  I would suggest to employers that you want to learn the ropes from them and that you’d be happy to do any work that would come your way.  I’d suggest that you’d be willing to work in one specific area in which they’re hiring, but that you’d like to round your IP experience in other areas which include licensing, trademarks, litigation, prosecution and copyright.  However, don’t suggest that you round your experience into an area that they don’t serve (like some places don’t do litigation).

Remember that you are voluteering to clerk for free, so you’ll need someone you can stay with.  That said, I would get almost any first job I could to get experience.  However, I would check out who I was working with.  If they have a bad reputation, it might rub off on you (but you’ll be a clerk, so they expect some cluelessness and you can explain it that way – like you stuck it out despite finding the reputation after committing).