We've come to expect a 1-2 year time period before the USPTO issues a first office action in response to a newly filed utility patent application. And that's typically just the beginning of the prosecution back and forth between a patent applicant and the patent examiner in trying to obtain allowance of the patent claims. Under the America Invents Act (the patent reform legislation), the USPTO Director optimistically reported yesterday that the backlog of patent applications awaiting prosecution is now down to only 660,000. That still seems like a lot, but he reports that the PTO has just hired a fleet of new examiners to attempt to tackle the backlogged cases.
There also is an excellerated examination option, which provides for a quick patent examination period (12 months). This option sets additional requirements upon a patent applicant, including payment of higher fees. But for time sensitive inventions – where an inventor benefits greatly from having an issued patent now – this option is worth considering.