Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

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Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

Postby DKC » Sun Mar 11, 2012 3:15 pm

I'm currently starting my second year of postdoc after completing my PhD in Immunology. Although I do enjoy learning about science and engaging in scientific discussions, I feel I've become somewhat jaded with doing actual scientific research. Hence, I applied to law school with the intent of pursuing a career in patent law. Now that I've been accepted to a few schools (Emory University, Boston University, Cardozo - approximately 1/2 scholarship to all of them), I'm beginning to wonder if I'm making the "best" career decision. And so, I was hoping to get the opinion/suggestions from others on here.

Basically, my biggest reason for wanting to leave bench research is the frustration of often working into the wee hours of the morning and having nothing to show for my effort. I understand that not all experiments are meant to result in ground-breaking discoveries, but a person can handle only so much inconsequential data/failure. Obviously, if the salary was a bit better, things might be a bit more tolerable, but that obviously isn't the case as a postdoc.

During the latter part of my graduate school, I was exposed a bit to the world of patent law as my PhD advisor wanted to file a patent for some of my graduate work. Although I was not intimately involved in the actual legal process itself, it seemed interesting enough. I've talked to a few patent attorneys and the general consensus was that it's a good career option if I like to read/write about "cutting-edge" science without actually "doing" science. And so, after growing more frustrated with basic research as a postdoc, I made the decision to apply to law school.

When I was applying to law schools, I thought that once I get accepted to a school, I would have no trepidation about making the transition into law. Of course, now that I actually got accepted, I'm starting to wonder if I'm making the best decision. After all, I've basically done science all my life and so I know how to do science. As for law, it's a completely new domain for me. I'm also a bit apprehensive about having to take out such a "big" student loan - even with partial scholarship, I figure I'll need to borrow close to 80-100K (including cost of living) to pay for law school. I had initially thought that a salary as a patent lawyer would easily suffice taking out such a loan, but I've been recently told by a few people (in academic scientific community) that unless I work for a big private law firm, salary as a patent attorney isn't all that much higher than what I would get paid as an academic professor or as a scientist at some biotech company. And if I do work at a big private law firm, I'd have to work so many hours to meet the expected billable hours that I really wouldn't have time to spend with the family nor really enjoy the salary. Their advice is that I should just do a few more years of postdoc work in an area of science that I'm really interested in and then either apply for a "real" job. Of course, this is coming from people in the academic scientific community, so they may or may not be a bit biased.

So, I guess the questions that I'd like to ask the other members on here are as follows:

1. For those with a PhD that made the transition into law, was it a difficult transition?

2. Financially speaking, would going to law school and making the transition into law be a better decision than staying in science?

Thanks in advance for any helpful suggestions/comments.

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Re: Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

Postby K.C. » Mon Mar 12, 2012 12:45 am

1. I took a different path than the one you propose taking. I started working as a patent agent at a large firm and then attended law school on the firm's dime (mostly). This option was preferable to me because: 1. I viewed the agent job as a trial job with much less financial risk; 2. If being an agent stunk I figured I could always land a postdoc job again without the law school debt hanging over my head; and 3. I have no debt from attending law school.

2. Yes. My firm pays on the $160K scale for associates. It is pretty easy to find how salary progresses on this scale via google as it is fairly standard among many of the larger firms located on the coasts. Making partner is where the real money is, but that is pretty far down the road and many associates don't make it.

Overall, I am quite happy with my choice to leave the bench behind for a variety of reasons, but your mileage may vary.

Depending on your current location and/or ability to move, you might want to consider looking for a patent agent job instead. Living in one of the bigger biotech hubs (SF, Boston, SD) will be a big plus and make it much easier to land that first, all-important, experience-stamping job.

Good luck with your decision. I attended law school with a number of "patent people" who took the plunge directly as you propose doing. Several landed great jobs at patent attorneys, but several people are still unemployed.
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Re: Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

Postby David Taylor » Mon Mar 12, 2012 8:37 am

The few colleagues and fellows I've seen make the transition went more the route of K.C. I took the time to dabble with my grad institution's tech transfer office to see if it would interest me (it didn't, so I'm glad I made the effort!).

I guess it's a judgement call on your part. If you're certain it's something you want, jump right in. Going the patent agent route, with your schooling covered, certainly has its perks though. When it comes to money and loans, it's really what you can handle based on your living situation (family, etc.) and your desired lifestyle for the next 3-5 years +.

From your language in the post, it doesn't come through that you're 100% sold on this career track. Are you confident you'll enjoy the work? If there's any hesitation, a quick internship (like I mentioned above) or moving to the patent agent track seem like safer bets.

Either way, I don't think additional postdoc work is the way to go if you've committed to leaving academia. Get moving toward your career goal.
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Re: Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

Postby ZYX » Mon Mar 12, 2012 3:23 pm


I am a life sciences postdoc trying to move into IP/patent law. I know I don't want to go back to school for a JD. So I am doing an internship in a tech transfer office and also taking evening classes as part of a certificate program in IP law in a nearby big university. I absolutely LOVE it and I am so glad I am doing this. My plan is to pass the patent bar (become an agent) and move into an academic tech transfer office or a tech specialist/agent in a law firm or to a patent/licensing office within a company.

If you have decided on leaving the bench and sort of sure that you like patent law, then I would suggest that you consider law school. I have interacted with attorney-teachers in my classes and they are very happy with their decision to go to law school after a PhD (some even have post doc experience). Law school is very different than grad school though. Grades are very important and you also need to pick a top school. From what I hear, these days 75% of a graduating class from a top school like Harvard get job offers right after school. The rate decreases to 50 % for a tier II school and is as low as 5% for some of the not so well recognized schools. So I would urge you to find out the job rates for the schools you have been accepted in before you choose one.

Attorneys in a lot of firms make twice more than an agent (starting of $150k vs $70k). And this only increases as you go, very much more for an attorney than for an agent. From what I hear, attorneys are also more well respected than agents or tech specialists. This again would depend on the firm though. With a Phd and a postdoc under your belt, I think the chances that you get an associate position after law school are pretty good even if you come out of an ok school. So I would not worry too much about the debt. The other option is to do what KC did ie. become an agent and have a firm foot the bill for law school. This however means that you will have to work during the day and go to school in the night for 4 years. I know folks who have done this and it is not easy by any stretch. But it is your call.

The only thing that I am not convinced from your post is if you are interested in patent law. You are going to be doing a lot of reading and writing as an attorney. May be you could try reading through some of the recent famous patent cases like myriad genetics, mayo vs prometheus to see if you like reading through those. Websites like LES and AUTM offer classes/webinar on IP basics. This would give you some idea if you like patent law.

If you are already frustrated with bench work, I feel like you should seek your way out irrespective of what others have told you which is continue your postdoc and get a job after that. Seriously, I think you will be in a much better position finding a real job in 3 years from now with a law degree than with 3 more years of postdoc.
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Re: Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

Postby Chris » Mon Mar 12, 2012 5:05 pm

I agree with the other folks that going to law school on your own dime sounds like a bad idea. The friends I had from grad school who went into patent law joined a firm and had their night school paid for. Free schooling plus a job already lined up (plus a job all along the way)! Sounds like a better deal to me. I'm sure there's some sort of payback agreement if you change your mind, but with the salary you'd be making you could save up for that.

The bigger question is whether you really want to make the jump. We talk a lot on the forum about people wanting change but also wanting to take the easy way out. Sending off hundreds of applications online without making a single phone call, that sort of thing. Studying for the LSAT and applying for law school on your own without really talking to lawyers and patent agents to see what it's all about seems like the path of least resistance. Sounds like you need to talk with some people and find out what your options are.
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Re: Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

Postby Anna B. » Tue Mar 13, 2012 10:08 am

1. For those with a PhD that made the transition into law, was it a difficult transition?

I got a Ph.D. before law school and have been practicing law in a big firm for several years, though I do general litigation and not patent law. For me, the transition was not at all difficult. I loved law school and did well, and I really like being a lawyer.

But--make sure you like patent law before you make a big financial investment in law school. I liked the idea of patent law a lot (cutting-edge science without the tedious lab work!), but during the summer after my 1L year, I did some actual patent-writing, and I found it excruciatingly boring. Fortunately, I loved and was good at litigation, so I went that route instead.

The hours can be brutal if you're at a $160K-type biglaw firm. Most people I know who work at firms like that honestly don't like it that much, though I know mostly litigators rather than patent lawyers. I work in a midwestern firm where our salaries are lower, but so are the hours (for the most part). I find it a good balance.

2. Financially speaking, would going to law school and making the transition into law be a better decision than staying in science?

This is a difficult question. If law school were free, I'd say yes. But when you're starting out $80K to $100K in the hole, it's less clear. If you get one of the $160K biglaw jobs, you'll be ok. But that's not guaranteed; it depends a lot on the school you go to and the grades you get. The schools you've gotten into are good, but they're the sorts of schools where you'll have to do very well to be competitive for the best-paying jobs. If you end up not getting one of those jobs, that level of debt can be really stressful and limiting.

I wouldn't listen to people in the academic scientific community about patent law salaries. You need to talk to people in the patent law community.

Good luck!
Anna B.
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Re: Seeking Career Advice (Transition from Science to Law)

Postby Eren Sumer » Mon Dec 03, 2012 8:43 pm

Hi everybody,
This is a very interesting discussion as I am trying to make the move to intellectual property myself but let me tell you it is not easy AT ALL especially not with todays grueling economy. So a few things you need to know before you make the move. I have 8 years of biopharmaceutical experience from Denmark, Portugal, USA and am fluent in 3 languages. I have multiple scientific publications, products that I developed and 1 patent that I drafted and filed. Unless you know somebody somewhere either in a law company or small boutique the career change can be extremely frustrating with endless rejections. So I passed the patent bar on July 18th, 2012 and have been applying to anything anywhere for a "Patent Agent" position as I am not picky with location. I started in New York City where I am located and I thought with so many law companies the transition would not be this hard. After a handful dusin of rejections with the standard reply that "your CV is impressive but we cannot offer you a position at the moment" I have extended my search to all over the US. Landing that first job especially when the economy is so bad seems to be close to highyl impossible and many of the positions require at least >3 years of experience. I do not hold a Phd. I have a Masters from a highly respected college in Denmark and in my opinion many places are very picky and snotty just because I do not have a fancy title that entails 3 letters. On the other hand I have industry experience and writing skills that most people do not acquire at the end of their Phd studies and am fluent in 3 languages but that does not seem to count for anything at all. At the moment I hold a green-card so I guess once I become US citizen I can apply for an examiner position and get my career jump-started that way. At the moment I am also looking into the possibility of getting my foot into the patent world through a scientist position in a biotech company and writing patents that way. By the way I work with a dusin recruiters on Linkedin which does not seem to lead me anywhwere. I am just hoping for that one chance somewhere that is crucial and will be determining for the subsequent path down the road. I am staying positive and hoping that in 2013 the situation will be somewhat better. If I could land a Patent Agent/Technical Special position somewhere and the company would fully finance law school I would be very much open to that as well. Any advice or companies you are aware of with entry-level positions in besides Morrison & Foerster (Applied 4 times heard nothing) will be greatly appreciated.
Best of luck to everyone making the change.
Eren Sumer
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