Firms seek more law grads with science, engineering degrees

Firms seek more law grads with science, engineering degrees

Law schools are producing too few JDs with the science backgrounds firms demand

by Kelly Rayburn

“The word on the street-and I think it’s been true in most sectors of the law-is that there are just not as many jobs as there used to be,” says Nataupsky, managing partner of the Irvine-based firm. “That’s not the case for students with engineering and hard science degrees if they want to go into IP or patent law.”

Recruiters back up Nataupsky’s impression that IP is one of the rare areas of law where demand for attorneys outstrips supply. Some blame competition from major tech companies, which grab the brightest engineers and computer scientists right out of undergraduate schools. Others finger law schools for failing to admit students with science backgrounds for fear that their lower GPAs will weigh down the schools’ rankings. Still others believe that too few students start college with an interest in math and science.

Whatever the causes, the outcome is clear: “The [lawyer] jobs that go unfilled are in IP,” says Delia Swan, president of Swan Legal Search, which does business across California.

Even as firms increasingly seek associates with a couple years of experience, brand new law school grads who also have degrees in electrical engineering or computer science still draw interest, says SunMi Kim, Robert Half Legal’s metro market manager for Southern California.

“Everyone wants the same thing: It’s EE, EE, EE [electrical engineering]-and sometimes ME [mechanical engineering],” says Gloria Sandrino, a San Diegobased legal recruiter with Lucas Group.

Computer science degrees also are in high demand-as are mechanical and aeronautic engineers, chemists, and biochemists-“pretty much every hard science category,” says Nataupsky.

Often the added value of a science background is the ability to understand a client’s invention. Not all IP firms report problems finding attorneys with the background they need, and some are more flexible than others. A science degree is “not an absolute prerequisite, but it helps,” says Michael Headley, a firmwide hiring principal with Fish & Richardson in Redwood City.

Many law schools say they recognize the importance of IP in the evolving legal market and have added IP faculty, courses, and clinics. At UC Hastings law school, for example, the Startup Legal Garage (see “Legal Careers,” page 6) pairs Silicon Valley start-ups with students who provide legal advice under the guidance of a pro bono attorney. “IP and other areas of the law related to tech have rebounded more quickly,” says Robin Feldman, director of Hastings’s Institute for Innovation Law, “and we want our students to be ready and trained for that.”

But many people say that an IP attorney’s undergraduate background can be as valuable as anything he or she learns in law school-and that schools should take note of that in admissions.

“A law school can’t take someone who is a history major and turn them into a patent lawyer,” says Valerie Fontaine, a recruiter with Los Angelesbased search firm Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith.

So desperate are firms for attorneys who know science that they increasingly recruit students from some of the country’s top science and tech graduate schools to work in a nonlawyer capacity on patents, says Sandrino. If the arrangement works out, firms are often willing to pay for law school for these students, assuming they agree to work for the firm after earning their JD. Cooley’s firmwide head of IP, Jim Brogan, says Cooley constantly recruits technology specialists-“tech specs”-this way.

As Joe Teja, a Cooley attorney working in Boston, puts it: “On balance, when we look at the benefit to the practice, the short-term investment is not insignificant. But holistically speaking, it’s a drop in the bucket-especially when you look at the people who become successful at this for their careers.”

Science degree may be an absolute prerequisite

By C. Bart Sullivan.

To be a patent attorney or agent requires that the candidate have a science degree or equivalent that is accepted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as qualifying under the patent practitioner guidelines. Moreover, this means, as Ms. Fontaine mentions, that a history major could not be trained as a patent lawyer, not because they are not trainable, but because a history major would not qualify under the USPTO guidelines. As a patent agent an electrical engineer, I can say that after 15 years working in the IP field, for law firms and fortune 500 companies, that even having the degree is often not enough.

You really have to understand the technology and patent law in order to write good defensible claims! Therefore, the scarcity is even greater as you need someone who understands the technology, someone who understands patent law, and someone who can communicate effectively with technology-savvy clients! Beyond education, great mentoring helps. I was fortunate to be mentored by some of the best patent counsels on the planet and have mentored many associates. So, I believe that good mentoring is a key requisite to developing a great patent professional and counsel.