Attorney is typically the first profession that comes to mind within law, but there are many careers within this sector for medical and life-science trainees, requiring little formal legal training. Several decades ago, there was no biotechnology-specific case law or legislation. Today, United States patents cover everything from single genes to multicellular organisms.
As law has evolved, so have the options for graduates wanting to pursue a career in science-related law. There are programs that sponsor a PhD through law school as well as opportunities for those who do not want formal training but wish to use their technical expertise to become registered patent agents or technology-transfer specialists. Technical biomedical expertise is critical to successfully structure mergers and acquisitions, manage intellectual property, establish claims on patents, and execute licensing deals within this sector.
A trainee may be able to work for Bay Area law firms such as Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Morrison & Foerster, and Latham & Watkins. Some work in the general counsel or intellectual property sides of companies and organizations. Some of these opportunities include:
To work as a patent lawyer on a life-sciences team, a JD is required. Patent law includes responsibilities such as drafting and filing patent applications, prosecuting patent applications through to grant, defending clients’ patents and opposing third-party patents, as well as advising clients on where they have the freedom to use their products in view of patents owned by others.
Many former trainees begin their law careers as patent agents before completing their JDs to become patent attorneys. To become a patent agent, science graduates must pass the exam set by the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). If successful, they are allowed to write patents and represent clients before the PTO. Law firms, universities, and biotech and pharmaceutical companies routinely employ patent agents. Typically, one would manage her or his company’s patent portfolio and licensing agreement. Key differences between a patent attorney and a patent agent are that the latter has a less clearly defined role inside a company than a patent lawyer does, and a patent agent is not allowed to handle litigation. Prior to taking the patent exam, one may gain experience as a patent analyst.
For those who are not interested in law school or patent-agent exams, the role of technology-transfer specialist offers another route into the legal field. This type of role provides a link between intellectual property and business for companies or universities. Typical responsibilities include ensuring patent protection for scientist inventors; licensing inventions to biotech and pharmaceutical companies; and reviewing and drafting material-transfer agreements, sponsored research, and collaboration agreements.
- Scientific expertise: In addition to one’s scientific expertise, it is helpful to have a broad knowledge and interest in science and technology as well as an ability to comprehend and discuss complex information quickly and accurately. If you like to read a lot and enjoy a fast-paced, innovative environment, this may be a good field for you.
- Communication: Precise communication skills are critical, as a lot of time will be spent meeting with inventors, understanding their new technologies, and helping them define these innovations within legal boundaries. More specifically, it is valuable to have strong negotiation, advocacy, presentation, and writing skills, because one will have to persuade patent examiners that clients’ inventions are new and innovative. The communications within this field are especially detail-oriented because just one word or sentence can mean the difference between a client making a fortune or making nothing at all.
- Interpersonal: Most positions have significant interactions with team members of the firm as well, so interpersonal skills are essential. Contrary to popular belief, law is a helping profession. You are, in essence, helping to protect clients and their intellectual property.