Thursday, August 11, 2011

Alternative careers in chemistry: patent attorney

In this week's chapter of "Nontraditional Careers for Chemists"*, a story of a bench chemist/manager who became an in-house scientific expert for a legal matter and began to enjoy it:
A university research group started a company to commercialize technology that Alex's company thought they had contributed to through an informal collaboration. Although the lawsuit was eventually settled, Alex learned the importance of documenting ideas properly and having agreements in place. He says, "Scientists are wonderfully creative and eager to share information. However, they need people like me around to preserve their rights and keep them out of trouble. This is not altruistic, of course, because employees usually must assign their right to the companies for which they work."  
At about this time, Alex was asked if he would like to make a career change, transferring from research to the legal department. He would work for the company in the patent craft full-time during the day, and they would pay for him to attend law school and prepare for the patent bar exam at night.  
He recalls, "[snip] When Applied Biosystems offered to pay for law school and accommodate my work schedule, I jumped at it. My motivation stemmed from the challenge and excitement of doing something different while also using, and building on, my chemistry background." Other valuable skills for patent work include interpersonal skills, such as the willingness to seek people out, get them to talk, and build relationships. Being detail-oriented also helps. 
I must admit, being a patent attorney sounds awfully dry. (Of course, sitting and reviewing 500 SciFinder hits can be dry, too. But I like that.) But if you're willing to step away from the bench and if you're detail-oriented and you enjoy business and legal strategery, it just might be your thing...

*As always, CJ's copy of the book helpfully provided by the author, Dr. Lisa Balbes. 

28 comments:

  1. You know, every time you relate one of the Ms. Balbes anecdotes, or reference one her funny advice columns I can not help but think about what "balbes" means in Russian.

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  2. Around 50% of the people I graduated grad school with are in law programs now. I foresee a glut of patent attorneys with nothing to patent in a few years. We already have a way more lawyers passing the bar every year than there are jobs for lawyers. To me, this sounds like a good way to pile on another $100k in debt before you start your Starbucks career.

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  3. Yep. Two careers that are really taking a beating right now. Marriage made in hell.

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  4. A classmate from grad school first became a patent agent (after a couple post docs with some big names) and is now a patent attorney. I was considering becoming an agent myself, but after talking to him, it seems that there's now a glut of former scientists-turned-patent agents.

    So the patent agent path is now saturated. I expect a lot of spill over to become patent attorneys, which will then saturate. Then what?

    We're all just fumbling around for jobs, aren't we? That's what "alternative careers" boils down to.

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  5. It's worth pointing out that financing your own patent law career seems like a bad move, but getting the degree paid for and having a job at the end of it? Maybe not such a bad cost/benefit.

    And, yes, it sure does seem like the pharma end of it is getting brutalized. Hope of branching out? Dunno.

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  6. I'll re-post this article from Yahoo's front page that I put in another thread. Outlook for lawyers; not positive.

    http://news.yahoo.com/graduates-accuse-law-schools-scamming-students-021529890.html

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  7. I think there will be, or already is, a glut of scientists with JDs and MBAs. Anyone considering going down that path needs to proceed with caution, and the knowledge that an advanced degree in science and either one of those degrees isn't that special or unique any longer.

    The one really creative alternate career track a former college went for was leaving his Pharma job as a chemistry group leader in 2007 and going to get his MD. That took some balls, if you ask me.

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  8. If you are going to get a degree in law, it should be in litigation. You will understand the technical aspects of environmental, medical and product liability cases much better than the people you are suing do and you can rip their experts to shreds on the stand. Plus you can use high technical mumbo jumbo to dazzle juries and baffle judges. Watching the ads on TV from the personal injury lawyers and knowing how much these guys rake in (John Edwards made $250 million in medical -bad babies-malpractice) strikes me as an opportunity to print money. Most importantly you can create your own business opportunities at will.

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  9. There will be a session on just this topic at the upcoming ACS meeting in Denver. It will take place on Monday, August 29th, starting at 9am in the Convention Center Room, Room 2C of the Korbel Ballroom, and is organized by the Chemistry and the Law division of ACS.

    Disclaimer: I will be one of the speakers, along with patent attorneys Justin Hasford and Sarah Perlinger, James Carver (environmental law) and Bill Carroll.

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  10. "but getting the degree paid for"

    My PhD was a paid for degree too, but that isn't working out so well...

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  11. Just to expand on "You're Pfizered's" comments, above:

    A Note to everyone in grad school now: all closely related easy-switch career paths for organic chemists are DONE, KAPUT and FINISHED. The skills you have with a PhD in orgo are now about as useful as a PhD in English Lit.... don't make the same mistake we all did!

    Academica (unless you're the next Phil Baran)
    Other types of chemistry (no better off, or saturated)
    Teaching high school or community college (saturated)
    MBA programs (no better off, AND saturated)
    JD/patent law (no better off, AND saturated)

    Seriously, the only options left require re-training... IT, medicine, etc....

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  12. Who would you rather be? The guy who invented Vioxx or the plaintiff lawyers who sued the Vioxx maker, Merck?

    Of course, there was a lot of money at stake. The total amount due all plaintiff lawyers was capped at $1.55 billion and most has been paid, but $315 million in so-called common benefit attorneys fees had yet to be disbursed. This amount was due to be paid to a subset of plaintiffs lawyers who were credited with crafting and negotiating the settlement.

    But the squabbling over the spoils got ugly, which is why this process went on for so long. There was a special court-appointed committee of plaintiffs lawyers, a special discovery master, numerous objections from some lawyers who charged this committee had untenable conflicts and even a hearing where these warring factions heatedly questioned one another.

    The “primary counsel for individual (Vioxx) claimants have already received over one billion dollars pursuant to contingent fee agreements,” US District Judge Eldon Fallon, who handled the multi-district litigation, wrote in a 132-page order this week in which he reallocated the $315 million among 108 different law firms.

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  13. "Around 50% of the people I graduated grad school with are in law programs now. I foresee a glut of patent attorneys with nothing to patent in a few years. "

    If they are in law school they are becoming attorneys. They are not limited to patent law. Perhaps the better statement is that extremely focused jobs like PhD/JD chemist are not commanding a large premium over the JD.

    Patent agents are limited to patent law - but they only have to take a test, not complete law school and complete the bar. But then again their pay sucks compared to an attorney.

    Think outside the box. There is more you can do with a PhD / JD then patent law.

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  14. "MBA programs (no better off, AND saturated)"

    Why is an MBA not better off and saturated? What about a PhD/MBA combo? I ask this seriously as I'm considering quitting research science to focus on a one year MBA next Fall.

    "I can not help but think about what "balbes" means in Russian."

    Russian just has a lot of words so foreign words can overlap accidentally. I'm sure some Russian names also sound strange to English speakers. Like Igor. I always pity people with that name in English speaking countries. I'm sure they automatically get rejected more often during the resume-skimming stage. Nope, you've got to have proper, WASP names to make it to the next round safely. Like John, Stacy, or Harold. Definitely not Cristall, Kumar or Igor.

    P.S. A special shout out to the immigration officer who forced me to change my name to normal-speak when I was a kid and thus gave me way more job opportunities in the future. Even though I really hate the way it sounds... thanks dude!

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  15. "I ask this seriously as I'm considering quitting research science to focus on a one year MBA next Fall."

    MBAs / science combos are saturated, as are JD/science combos. They are saturated for the same reasons that PhD fields are saturated. Seems like more education could only help right? I think we all know from experience this is not true.

    To get accepted into a worthwhile MBA program you will need considerable industry experience. You will gain a lot more from the program if you have worked outside of academia prior to starting the MBA.

    You might want to stick with your PhD if you have visa sponsorship requirements. Check out some job postings with MBA requirements. The majority will not consider applicants who require visa sponsorship. Why do you think the supply of PhD is sciences is so high? Why do you think so many Americans are entering business versus science? Do you really believe all the propaganda that Americans are less interested in science than other nationalities? This could not be further from the truth!

    Americans college students go to business areas versus sciences for one simple reason. Wages are higher in business than science. This is because US policies create a massive oversupply of scientists by linking the path to citizenship to a PhD or science/engineering degree.

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  16. Uncle:

    Please keep me posted (by e-mail or otherwise) what your decision is; it will be interesting to see what you decide.

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  17. Uncle Sam, I appreciate the nod to this scene:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXF7_0CAAdo

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  18. "Please keep me posted (by e-mail or otherwise) what your decision is; it will be interesting to see what you decide."

    Well, now that I'm being told that it's pointless, I'm starting to reconsider doing it again. I mean, I don't have any industry experience. But a lot of people who do the MBA program are just done with a bachelors and don't have any experience either actually. Don't good programs go out of their way to admit students who have a PhD in science? But yes, I'm a bit worried that I should get industry experience first to make it worthwhile (like a few years and maybe become group leader or something). But if I'm going to get an MBA anyways and quit, why the hell should I waste five years on 'industry experience' first when I could go directly to the dark side? It's not like I'm going to use whatever I learn at the bench there. And the social aspect I learned from reading "In the Pipeline" for the last five years.

    Dr. Zoidberg: yes, I was thinking of that scene.

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  19. Forgot to mention, but two of the profs I worked for tried to make money from their research, so it's too bad that experience (getting together and brainstorming practical things that will get sold on the market) and trying to make deadlines plus showing the lab J&J stooges, still only counts as purely academic research.

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  20. "Please keep me posted (by e-mail or otherwise) what your decision is; it will be interesting to see what you decide."

    Well, now that I'm being told that it's pointless, I'm starting to reconsider doing it again. I mean, I don't have any industry experience. But a lot of people who do the MBA program are just done with a bachelors and don't have any experience either actually. Don't good programs go out of their way to admit students who have a PhD in science? But yes, I'm a bit worried that I should get industry experience first to make it worthwhile (like a few years and maybe become group leader or something). But if I'm going to get an MBA anyways and quit, why the hell should I waste five years on 'industry experience' first when I could go directly to the dark side? It's not like I'm going to use whatever I learn at the bench there. And the social aspect I learned from reading "In the Pipeline" for the last five years.

    Dr. Zoidberg: yes, I was thinking of that scene.

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  21. When you get work experience you will understand the differences between that and academics.

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  22. If it means trying as a group to create a product that will sell and writing patents, then I already have that experience in an academic setting. Also, I had my own project that I was fighting for with the boss, but it didn't work out so well. As well, I've got the experience of being fired once when the group ran out of cash. Or laid off or whatever. That's when I decided to go to grad school.

    No, really, I know what you mean. But certain academic groups seem to simulate the industrial experience pretty well as far as I can tell from reading 'in the pipeline' posts.

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  23. uncle sam
    The experience you describe may be closer than some other groups, but definetly not the same as true industry experience. I have seen several PhDs who have come from groups with experiences similar to the one your describe, but there is still a very real transition from academia to industry.

    If you do decide to go to business school straight from academic labs, definitely highlight your more 'real world'-like experiences in your grad school applications. Hopefully a respectable B-school will agree with your assessment of your experiences. IMO, you would benefit more from a MBA if you had a few years of industrial experience before starting.

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  24. >> "Around 50% of the people I graduated grad school with are in law
    >> programs now. I foresee a glut of patent attorneys with nothing to
    >> patent in a few years. "

    > "If they are in law school they are becoming attorneys."

    > "Patent agents are limited to patent law - but they only have to take a
    > test, not complete law school and complete the bar. But then again
    > their pay sucks compared to an attorney."

    Three I am thinking of took courses and took the exam to be a patent agent. After this, most of them went through a period of surfing (or similar) and unemployment. They got denied for a bunch of jobs, including some at the USPTO. Now they, and some others, are in law school. Not sure the plan, but patent law was what I assumed they were doing.

    > "Think outside the box. There is more you can do with a PhD / JD then
    > patent law."

    Right, but there appears to be a whole lot more JDs than there are positions for JDs. I'm not sure a PhD would make you anymore competitive. Certainly not a career path I would care to explore. More education isn't always the solution.

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  25. With a JD you could be CEO of Pfizer. Or Boston Market. What does it matter with the size of those salaries and bonuses? :-)

    Then again, it is not always smiles and kittens on the other side of the rainbow. Even high ranking JDs enter unemployment lines:
    http://features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2011/07/28/pfizer-jeff-kindler-shakeup/

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  26. So sick of people doing tons of school and wanting a hand out job at the end of it. You studied what you loved. If you wanted to make money then you should have picked a profession that hands you a job at the end of it. Become an entrepreneur and make money. The Big bad world doesn't give a fuck about u. Even people with hand out jobs fall on tough times. Create something.

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    Replies
    1. Are you glad you got that off your chest?

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  27. Wow, he went from working with chemistry to being a patent lawyer? That seems like a really big change. And the company even paid for him to get the schooling to become a lawyer! That's incredible. http://www.patentinfoplus.com/-2.php

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