PNAS: W. F., Patent Lawyer

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.

First up in this round is a CS major turned IP lawyer.

1) What is your non-academic job? I am an intellectual property attorney. I work for a "boutique" law firm, which means it specializes in one area of law (that being intellectual property, naturally). I work on all areas of IP, principally patent, copyright, and trademark (but especially patents).

In 2014, I was seconded to Japan for a major client of my firm, a Japanese corporation that you've heard of (to say the least) but that I won't name. I do the same job, but I work directly and solely for this corporation.

2) What is your science background? I have a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in Computer Science Engineering. (I'm also a member of the Patent Bar, which is relevant because that requires a level of scientific background usually seen through coursework.)

3) What led you to this job? When I started college, I figured I was going to get my programming degree and go off and work at Google or somewhere and write code for a living. But while I was there I took several courses in the History and Sociology of Science department (which I ended up minoring in) on the relationship between science/technology and society/culture, including History of Western Technology, Science and Literature ("science fiction as the mythology of the modern scientific/technological society"), and Cyberculture.

I realized that I was still fascinated by technology and computers, but not for their own sake: I wanted to be involved in how they fit into the world. And in that interplay, I found the issues of law. Cyberlaw, copyright law in the digital era, constitutional questions applied to the Internet, and the underlying questions of creativity, technology, and culture...it grabbed me and didn't let go.

I graduated and spent two years working as a programmer, more to get some "real life" experience before going back to school than anything else, then went to law school. From there it was straightforward interviewing through my school.

I got my secondment because it was a preexisting program at my firm, but I made a point of asking about it a lot.

4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) I work in an office. In New York I have my own office with a door that closes and everything, and my firm is business formal four days a week with casual Fridays; in Japan I'm in a big open-plan office (which is apparently the norm here) and business casual every day unless we're having a big meeting and want to look the part.

5) What do you do in a typical day? Most of my job is reading and writing. On a typical day I'll research case law to write legal opinions or legal arguments, review patents for legal analysis, consult with a client about their case, maybe do some filing of documents with the relevant court, or review documents we received as part of our cases (the dreaded "doc review").

In Japan, it's pretty much the same, but with an emphasis on reviewing contracts for proper English usage, and meeting with American adversaries (companies we're involved in disputes with) to be involved in negotiation, including translation--of gestures and tact as much as language. I spend a good amount of time explaining to my Japanese coworkers what I, as an American, read from adversaries' body language or tone of voice.

6) How does your science background help you in your job? Most important for me is that I review patents, and I really do need a science background for that. (As I said above, a science background is actually required to be on the Patent Bar, which just means I'm allowed to file patent applications for other people.) Patents will frequently have schematics or specialized terms, and a lot of patent law is based around the perspective of a "person having ordinary skill in the art," so it's pretty important to speak the language or technology and science.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
They shouldn't.

Just kidding. That's the standard answer to people college students who want to be lawyers, though. Google around and you can find plenty on that point. But if you've actually decided that you want to be an IP lawyer, get a grounding in the law (I took a "law 101" course as an undergrad), and choose your law school carefully.

IP is kind of an odd duck in the law; unlike a lot of other fields it's more specialized (hence there are a lot more boutique firms like mine), so if you're in this, you'll be in for the long haul. You can't really decide to chuck it and switch to bankruptcy. (I mean, you can, but it's a bit harder.)

On the other hand, I do entertain fantasies of going in-house at places like Google (and it's possible).

Some things don't change.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? Logic. During my 1L course on statutory interpretation, I seemed to be the only person in the room who understood the difference between "and" and "or" when used in a list. (It's pretty important because if a law, especially something like a criminal law, says "A, B, _and_ C," that's really different from "A, B, _or_ C." And the law is full of multi-part tests.)

Relatedly, my experience with computer code makes legal code easier to understand. Jokes on the names aside, the two forms of writing have a lot more in common with each other than either does with fiction.

And like I said, the language of science is pretty damn important. Especially when you're dealing with engineers giving depositions.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?
Never be afraid to reevaluate why you want to do something. I thought I wanted to be a programmer, but it wasn't writing code that I really cared about.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? I'm a lawyer, in a traditional law firm to boot. More has been written about legal salaries than about why college students shouldn't want to be lawyers. All I'll say is, I'm on the lowish side of the ridiculous salaries common to my profession.

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