Robert Yeh completed his Ph.D. in chemistry and worked for five years in medical diagnostics and at a research institute before he decided to go to law school. Today, he is a first-year associate with Fish & Richardson, which focuses on intellectual property, litigation and patent law.
Becoming a lawyer was not part of his original game plan, but he found himself gravitating towards patent law while working as a scientist and he eventually made the decision.
While at the University of California, Berkeley law school, he found that students with scientific backgrounds like his looking for openings at firms had an easier time landing jobs.
“I applied to firms that advertised their emphasis on patent law and IP law, interviewed and spent a summer interning here,” Yeh said.
The firm’s principal in charge of local hiring, Seth Sproul, who has a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering himself, said the firm has always favored attorneys with technical backgrounds, although it’s not a requirement except for those prosecuting patent law -- since attorneys need to have a science degree to sit for the patent bar.
The idea is that having a background in biotechnology or engineering will help a lawyer better understand the complexities of the technology involved when litigating a case.
Sproul noted that his firm has always looked for technical backgrounds, but the trend has picked up more in recent years with other firms, as well.
“We used to have an easier time hiring those with technical degrees. It’s harder now because of the increased visibility of patent and IP law, but we look for those candidates first, not necessarily exclusively,” Sproul said. “Given that we have very limited hiring, we’re able to find those that fit what we’re looking for.”
The law firm’s attorneys tend to have backgrounds in computer science, electrical engineering, biotech and pharmaceuticals, with a bachelor’s degree being more common in engineering and advanced degrees more the norm in areas like chemistry and biology.
Work experience the decider
Yeh happens to be among the few with a Ph.D., but Sproul said most of their first-year hires do have work experience in addition to hard-science backgrounds.
When it comes to litigation, experience seems to be the differentiator -- for a lawyer looking for a position, having significant law work experience can overcome his or her not having a technical background.
“If they have a great deal of experience to draw from, I would think finding a job should not be too difficult. Many of our most successful associates and partners don’t have technical degrees but are patent litigators,” said James Mullen, office managing partner at Morrison & Foerster.
Mullen’s firm focuses on litigation, IP, financial services, corporate and real estate law. He said other than in patent law, his firm does not have too many attorneys with science backgrounds.
Mullen was on Morrison & Foerster’s hiring committee for four years, and said that there’s a niche for lawyers with technical degrees in intellectual property litigation. But like Sproul, he stressed that it was not a requirement.
“Some of our must illustrative trial attorneys don’t have a science background, but are extremely effective in front of juries and judges,” Mullen said.
Pros and cons of technical litigators
Both firms have gone up against lawyers who did not have technical degrees, and Sproul said it put the opposing counsel at a disadvantage in one way.
“We’ve litigated against lawyers without technical degrees who require consultants to sit on the technical issues -- so they need an extra staffer or consultant that we can avoid,” Sproul said.
But Mullen disagreed, saying it’s not necessarily a disadvantage. For trial attorneys, having a science background may not be the best way to go.
“A true advocate should not be bogged down in science and theory; they want to be able to tell a story,” Mullen said. “At least in patent law, litigators are not going to be as well-versed in the science for patent litigation, so they are going to need an expert. Why not use them for the technical aspects?”
Mullen subscribes to the theory that it’s better to compartmentalize and distribute expertise, than to combine it.
“I’m concerned that someone with a litigation practice who also prosecutes may find themselves being jack of all trades and master of none,” he said. “That’s inherently less efficient than someone who understands science and someone else who understands litigation.”
Both attorneys did emphasize that when it comes to hiring, what they are looking for is a good lawyer.
“We didn’t hire Rob just because he is a Ph.D.,” Sproul said. “We want lawyers who can write, who are good at what they do -- the technical background might push you to the front of our list,” Sproul said.
“Candidates go to law school to learn how to write and think, and can’t just rest on their laurels in having a technical degree.”
But with that said, law firms are still going to be looking for lawyers with technical backgrounds, since they do bring a greater understanding of the technology.
-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.