Alright, so just let me say that I'm another current examiner and I am very happy with my job situation. I agree that the negative stigma of the Patent Office is supremely overblown.
As for a background, I went to the PTO with the original intention to eventually go to full time law school after a few years of experience. About two years in, as good friends of mine (also quality examiners) decided to go off to law school, I decided to stick around, and changed my goals to part time law school. Here I am now about four years later and I must admit that the chances of me going to law school seem less likely every day.
After plenty of years of thinking, sitting on the brim of retaking the LSAT and contemplating attending a part-time local school (e.g. one of the Georges), I've come to the hard truth that going the private route would be for three reasons: 1) salary 2) prestige and 3) intellectual opportunity.
I'm going to parse over each and my reasons for staying.
Number 1, although patent attorneys may rake in 150k-200k a year in their early staging, I'm fairly certain they're also working almost twice as much. I also feel that like many things in life, salary has a diminishing marginal utility e.g. making 100k vs. 50k is substantially more awesome than making 150k vs. 100k. Yes, maybe you'll make 200k+ but, MY GOD, the amount of slaving that needs to be done over the course of several years or a decade to get there seems beyond compensation. I'm 27 and I'm making around 100k (with the looming on and off OT). I'm not rich, but I'm certainly living comfortably. The new policies governing telework will only make the salaries more inviting (Corn palace in Iowa?). In a few years with modest overtime I'll be in the 120-150k range with most primaries. I'll never own a yacht, but I'd have plenty of time to sail on one if I did. Somebody on this forum once had a great quote, (not verbatim) that "the world has a funny way of paying for your life". That really struck me, and the 50K less I'll be making throughout my career stages will be worth the occasional noon wake ups and the "I feel like flexing today and sitting by the pool". (If you haven't followed, that 50K differential is paying for an enormous amount of time off and flexibility).
Number 2, this is probably wishy washy. Maybe we all had dreams of donning an Armani suit, carrying a fancy briefcase, and winking at the babes. "Oh, this engineer is different, my god, its a sexy lawyer!" But seriously, other than the ultra fancy litigation gigs, this is mostly analogous to the CSI shows on TV which make being a homicide detective look like a sweet job rather than what it really is: cold calling a bunch of degenerates and perusing around bad neighborhoods. I've heard plenty of prosecution attorneys' voices crack. You can also dress nice at the PTO instead of the sweatpants (and nobody will notice). Its about how you present yourself and a passion for your job. If a pretty girl hears "law" and "engineering" in the same sentence, you're probably as well off as an examiner as an attorney.
Number 3, Somebody before said it best. Your job doesn't define you. The Flextime and good hours at the PTO offers one an abundance of time to read, develop hobbies, and enjoy life. I do feel like I could "do more" sometimes. I feel like I'd be good at law school and could kill the LSAT, but these things don't define you, unless you want them to. It's also an unfair comparison. Is my job more, "jump through the hoops" than the average day of an attorney? Most likely, but I'm also willing to bet my job is more interesting than 90% of other jobs out there.
This all being said, a job at the PTO is most definitely not for everyone. I had a friend who had a short tenure. He wasn't big on reading, wasn't big on vocabulary, and didn't particularly like writing. He'd be great at fixing machinery and doing equations though. It's really a legal orientated job so reading and writing are essential. Its amazing to me sometimes how people who call the fish fillets "Fill - its" in the cafeteria could possibly be construing claim language professionally (Not that a handle on adopted French words is a necessity, but you get the point).
I had a tirade (three erased paragraphs) on the whole timekeeping hubbub but felt a public forum wasn't the best place for that discussion. It included discussions of the de facto pure production system, morality, and philosophies of labor, but the straight dope was that there is no incentive for examiners to create rushed and non-quality actions, even with the lure of unworked OT, because such actions create a myriad of time-intensive problems down the road, easily eclipsing any amount saved through careless actions. If you're eking out extra crap actions to claim unworked OT every week, my god, that would compound on you so fast. In 6 months the poop storm would begin to fall. The one quality thing the TQAS have espoused in my short tenure in the office is compact prosecution e.g. doin' it right the first time.