Scientific work experience gives attorneys a boost: Lab knowledge helpful in intellectual property work

July 23, 2007

At first thought, people might assume most attorneys have undergraduate degrees in political science or criminal justice. And while many do, those with backgrounds in engineering, chemistry, physics, and other sciences are being drawn more and more to law because of the growth of interest from businesses in intellectual property.

Some IP attorneys decided to take the leap from working in the science world to the legal one, and those who did it say their time working in a lab or on projects helped to prepare them for a career in intellectual property.

Tracy Knight is one attorney who found herself interested in IP after spending several years working in a laboratory. The patent attorney at Indianapolis law firm Woodard Emhardt Naughton Moriarty McNett & Henry got undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and philosophy with the original intent of going to medical school. After graduation, she decided not to go to med school and worked in a lab to buy time before she decided what her next step would be.

She liked some aspects of working in the lab but couldn't see herself doing it day after day. She met a female patent attorney who worked in a lab before becoming an attorney who also didn't like working in the lab everyday, which inspired Knight to take a look at becoming a patent attorney.

"I want to know a lot about a lot of things, and this law gives me that opportunity," she said.

Knight enrolled in law school at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis and received her J.D. in 2004. Now, instead of working in a lab every day, she focuses on intellectual property litigation.

In order to practice before the U.S. Patent Office, attorneys have to have a science background. Although it's not unusual to find attorneys who have spent several years working as a chemist or engineer before becoming a lawyer, it's not the norm according to some in intellectual property.

Because of the growing demand for IP attorneys, many students now choose to go straight from undergrad to law school.

L. Scott Paynter, chairperson of intellectual property and technology practice at Krieg DeVault, said his firm has a mix of attorneys who went straight through school and those with prior work experience.

Because the field of IP has heated up quickly, there are more students who know from the beginning of their college career they want to become an IP attorney. He said it used to be fairly rare that someone would go straight through undergrad and law school, but it seems more attorneys are doing just that these days.

Dennis Schell, of Practice Innovation Law Office of Dennis Schell and an attorney at Overhauser Law offices, said when he was in law school nearly 10 years ago, there was a fair number of students with a science or engineering undergrad degree like himself but not many with actual work experience.

"I think that it's becoming a more common route, just because of how intellectual property law has grown in such importance in business and commerce and is an expanding area of the law," said Schell, who worked as an electrical engineer for four years and as an aviator in the Air Force for eight years before becoming an IP attorney.

Baker & Daniels IP practice group leader Eric Groen said his law firm is pretty evenly split between attorneys who have work experience and those who went straight to law school. Groen spent four years as an engineer before going to law school. He said it was more prevalent in year's past to gain experience in the field before going to law school.

"It's become such a popular field that there are more students going straight through," he said.

The growth of IP can be reflected in the background of students entering law school. Law schools in Indiana report an increase in science majors and see more "non-traditional" students-those with some work experience between undergrad and law school.

"We have seen an increase in the number of students coming with hard science degrees and seeking IP. The vast majority of the hard science students are seeking patent work," said Curt Cichowski, associate dean at the Valparaiso University School of Law in an e-mail. "Many of the recent patent and trademark students in my class do come with related prior experience."

Patricia Kinney, director of admissions at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, said in the three years she has been director, she has seen an increase in the number of students with hard science and non-traditional backgrounds.

In Bloomington, around 20 percent of the law school's incoming class last year had a hard science background-one of the highest percentages the school has seen, said Dennis Long, assistant dean for admissions. He said the interest in intellectual property is increasing and continues to grow.

While it may appear more IP attorneys these days are choosing to go straight to law school after completing their undergrad degree, the non-traditional students who become attorneys say their work experience helps them better relate to the client.

Schell said he works with many scientists or engineers whose inventions are sometimes straightforward and understandable, and sometimes they are quite complex and require more expertise to understand.

"I definitely draw on my engineering education and my specific engineering experience nearly every day," he said.

Groen said having his engineering background allows him to better know engineering techniques when working with clients, as well as to better understand the client's product and process.

Paynter said having prior work experience helped him in his legal career because it taught him general business skills, such as how to write letters, that he learned because of his science job.

"It translates very easily in a law firm environment," he said.

For Knight, science helped her while in law school and in working as a patent attorney. She said the specific logic and reasoning she developed while working in a lab helped her in some aspects of the law, such as eliminating other causes to end up with results.

It also helps her to communicate appropriately with her audience, whether it's a skilled scientist or someone without a science background. In her day-to-day work, she said her experience working in a lab exposed her to working with different people with various backgrounds, which helps when working with a team on litigation.

"Diverse viewpoints are good," she said. "The more points you know exist, the better job you will do."
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