Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Chemistry + law = ?
June 13, 2011 4:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering going to law school. I have BSs in chemistry and biochemistry. If I went, I'd like to end up practicing in an area where my scientific education is useful. Other than patent law, in what legal specialties would my background be helpful?

I know that patent law is the stock answer for a science/engineering background plus a JD, but I've been working in a job supporting patent attorneys for several years, and I've read an awful lot of patents in that time, and I think I'd like a switch. I wouldn't be totally averse to practicing patent law, but it wouldn't be my first choice.

I'm particularly interested in environmental law. How useful would my chemistry background be there? And what other areas of law are there where my scientific knowledge would be useful? I'm in the US.

Note: I am not asking whether to go to law school. Answers to this question will be one of many factors I consider in that decision. I've seen the previous AskMe's on that topic and know what the job market is like. If you feel compelled to give me advice outside the scope of this question, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Gregor Samsa to Work & Money (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have a couple law school classmates with biology or chemistry backgrounds (or combinations thereof) who have had very successful careers as environmental law lawyers, who consider the science degree very important to that success. Most started as government lawyers (EPA or DOJ) and then moved on. All were editors on an environmental law journal during law school and/or worked with environmental NPOs prior to or during the summers of law school.

Law school curriculum is not like college or graduate school where you have a major and that's the type of job you look for. By all means, take classes (where offered) in the sorts of topics you think are relevant to the type of law you'd like to practice, but what is generally more relevant in the job search is the type of work conducted at the offices where you do your summers.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:01 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


It depends on what kind of law you are going to practice, i.e., litigation or advising clients on contracts and compliance. In litigation, it will give you a very slight edge up, but not much as you aren't allowed to testify, and your experts and the case facts are going to dictate your direct examination and the cross of the other side's experts.

I could see it as being helpful in the compliance area, although usually, your clients are going to be the experts on what they are doing, not you.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:01 PM on June 13, 2011


It may help a little bit with environmental law but probably not much. It's not a common requirement for environmental law positions. It certainly won't be a replacement for any of the main requirements for a job (e.g. top notch grades). To the extent it's a tie-breaker between equal applicants you'd better hope you're up against an English major because anyone with a biology, ecology, etc degree is probably going to win that fight.

It doesn't sound like you have much business experience as a chemist or biochemist. If you had significant experience in that capacity (especially in startups) you could possibly stress that in firms doing business formation, VC funding, and regulatory work.

To give you a sense of how little it likely matters: even in patent law, litigation positions often do not require or prefer a technical background.

I have a couple law school classmates with biology or chemistry backgrounds (or combinations thereof) who have had very successful careers as environmental law lawyers, who consider the science degree very important to that success. Most started as government lawyers (EPA or DOJ) and then moved on. All were editors on an environmental law journal during law school and/or worked with environmental NPOs prior to or during the summers of law school.

I think your classmates are putting the cart before the horse. They had good grades and good writing skills (evidence: law journal and summer employment), they had a demonstrated interest in environmental law (evidence: working for NPOs and the government), and they were able to find relevant summer employment. All of those factors are far more dependent on grades, writing ability, connections, and general hustle than having a science degree.
posted by jedicus at 5:10 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine has an undergrad degree in engineering and a JD. She now does some sort of arcane thing with contracts for a defense contractor. I don't know a lot about it, possibly because it's way outside my level of expertise, but possibly also because there are top secret government clearances involved. Either way, she seems to be doing well for herself and enjoying... whatever it is she does, exactly.
posted by Sara C. at 5:20 PM on June 13, 2011


Law school is such a generalized education that you're bound to find one or more areas of interest that may or may not have anything to do with why you went. I wanted to do business litigation, and ended up a criminal defense attorney after an internship in the local prosecutor's office.

What's most important is your ability to think and write clearly. Your ability to do this will be demonstrated by excellent grades and hopefully law review. Your background generally may be useful in helping understand evidence that relates to your fields.

You could probably be up to speed in anything sufficiently science-y in shorter time than non-science colleagues. In my field, this might mean DNA and forensic science stuff, as well as blood alcohol and breath alcohol evidence and that sort of thing. But the reality is that all the heavy lifting will be done by expert witnesses.
posted by Hylas at 5:32 PM on June 13, 2011


Are you aware that, despite your reference to "patent law," patent prosecution and patent litigation are very different animals?

A bachelor's degree isn't really much of a technical background, FYI. Minus a master's and/or actually being an engineer or something, you'd likely be on the underqualified side of things for patent prosecution.

Your scientific knowledge won't be useful, per se, in environmental law. But your ability to grasp scientific concepts more quickly and be conversant in sciencey stuff might.

I wouldn't let your BS in chemistry and biology factor heavily into your decision of whether or where to attend law school. Why do you want your educational background, which is really just college, to be especially on-point "useful"? Can't you find something to be excited about in the myriad possibilities for practicing? If not, think about that for a minute.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:35 PM on June 13, 2011


Your scientific knowledge won't be useful, per se, in environmental law. But your ability to grasp scientific concepts more quickly and be conversant in sciencey stuff might.

I'd add, and be able to explain it clearly. We've lost cases because the lawyers didn't comprehend the evidence given by the experts in the case (on either side). A good lawyer who understands the power and limitations of analytical and forensic chemistry is invaluable in the courtroom. A really good lawyer can make complicated testimony comprehensible for a jury.
posted by bonehead at 7:06 PM on June 13, 2011


Thanks to everyone for your answers so far--they are all helpful. And especially this:

Your scientific knowledge won't be useful, per se, in environmental law. But your ability to grasp scientific concepts more quickly and be conversant in sciencey stuff might.

Which I find encouraging (as well as bonehead's further explanation). And I had that kind of thing in the back of my mind, but it's good to have it made explicit.

Why do you want your educational background, which is really just college, to be especially on-point "useful"?

Because I enjoy learning about and talking about and explaining science! It's why I got the science degrees in the first place. As jedicus correctly divines, I have relatively little experience as a laboratory scientist (I found I didn't like doing the science as much as learning about it), but I believe that, all other things being equal, I'd find a legal career more fulfilling if it involved that aspect.

That said, I'm aware that other things aren't equal, and I'll keep an open mind about other areas of the law which don't particularly involve chemistry, some of which I also find fascinating.
posted by Gregor Samsa at 7:56 PM on June 13, 2011


Come to think of it, I'd look into regulatory law -- federal, and maybe state, agencies. Law and policy stuff is going to involve more at the intersection of science, more regularly, than even science-ey litigation like environmental law.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:43 PM on June 13, 2011


I don't think your background is going to be particularly helpful for environmental law. Realize that most of what people categorize as "environmental law" is either regulatory work for the government or compliance work in the private sector. The money is in the private sector work, and it's mostly working for oil and gas companies, trying to keep them out of trouble with the regulators. Your ability to sift through regulations with a fine-toothed comb is much more important in either position than your grasp of chemistry.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:50 AM on June 14, 2011


« Older Has CRM ever worked for anyone...   |  What is the best form of your ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.