Can I work in IP?
August 9, 2009 9:51 AM   Subscribe

[LawFilter]Should I not indicate to employers that I'm interested in Intellectual property?

I'm at a top-14 law school (after transferring from a top-30) and will be interviewing this week with about a dozen firms for next summer. Over the last couple years I've developed a strong interest in technology, and am personally very interested in the types of litigation dealing with digital property rights and simply intellectual property in general. I'm very tech-savvy, but I hold no hard science, engineering, or computer science degree (I was a Government major...).

So for those of you who are lawyers, practicing IP, or familiar with how top firms recruit for this type of litigation--how exactly should I present this interest to employers? Would I look ignorant for even suggesting that I am qualified to do this type of work? It is my understanding that much IP litigation can be done by those without hard-science backgrounds, and that such a background is only necessary to be admitted to the patent bar for patent litigation.
posted by Kifer85 to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
such a background is only necessary to be admitted to the patent bar for patent litigation.

That's 'patent prosecution,' but otherwise you are correct.

Anyway, you should indicate your interest if IP is something that the firm does. If the firm doesn't do a lot of IP work, then you might not want to talk it up. Generally it's a good idea to show interest in some particular areas; otherwise, one runs the risk of appearing like an aimless law school student hoping to stumble across something one likes doing. Firms are not interested in funding journeys of self-discovery for summer associates.

Be aware, also, that patent filings are down considerably in the US and abroad. Although that won't affect you directly, it does mean that IP departments are bringing in a lot less money than they were a year ago. Depending on how a firm is structured, there might be a hiring freeze for the whole IP department rather than just patent prosecution as more attorneys are shifted from transactional to litigation work. So you might want to double check that the firms you are interviewing with haven't had any recent layoffs in their IP departments.
posted by jedicus at 10:03 AM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Be honest about what you are interested in doing, but to the extent you can, examine your own interests before hand -- technology is much bigger than IP litigation, and some of what (at least in my opinion) are the most interesting ways a lawyer can be involved in technology are in transactions or general litigation, as opposed to IP litigation per se. A more general interest in technology clients and matters might be more marketable in a competitive marketplace, particularly given many law firms are evaluating you now (in the summer of 2009), as a prospect for starting work for them full time in January 2013 (2011 graduation plus the 18 month deferral being built into many offers).
posted by MattD at 10:05 AM on August 9, 2009

You may want to reconsider your direction. I work in reverse engineering IC's. Everyone I've ever known, which is in the dozens at least, at the companies I've worked at in this technology field who does IP litigation hates their job. Of all the departments they also has the largest turnaround rate for that very reason. Reading tech patents all day becomes very unwelcome after a while. Luckily for me they are only co-workers.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:09 AM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmm...I should further clarify that patent prosecution means representing parties before the US Patent Office. That includes applying for patents, filing for reexamination of the patents of others, participating in what's called an interference, etc. All of that requires admission to the patent bar and, accordingly, a science or engineering background.

Patent litigation (e.g., patent infringement suits, declaratory judgment actions for patent invalidity, etc) can be done by any attorney. The same is true of patent licensing and similar transactional work. No technical background is required, though of course some IP firms like to see a technical background or even patent bar admission for all of the attorneys that do patent work of any kind. That's something you should check.
posted by jedicus at 10:13 AM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just as a data point, at one of the more well-known Canadian IP laws firm all associates are expected to also become patent agents ASAP and thus virtually all of the law students who applied successfully had substantial science or technology backgrounds -- most at the graduate level and many with multiple advanced degrees.

That firm mostly represents patent- and trademark-holders with an interest in the most expansive possible (and ever-expanding) IP regime. I wouldn't necessarily expect the same qualifications to be mandatory on the other side of things, i.e. at firms with IP practices geared more toward... shall we say, "copyfight" advocacy or defending clients against infringement claims. I can't tell from your question what aspects of IP law interest you, but I have found that most people from non-science/tech backgrounds are much more interested in the political and policy aspects of IP law reform than the daily grind of prosecuting patents & trademarks...
posted by onshi at 10:20 AM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I published an article on an IP topic and I'm still not qualified to work in IP lit because I don't have a hard science background. The best way into IP stuff without a hard science background is to lateral in with litigation experience.

Where did you work this summer? Were you able to get any IP experience if you were with a firm?
posted by lockestockbarrel at 11:15 AM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I suggest telling them that you're interested in IP litigation, but understand that it may be difficult to get into that area without a science background. And then tell them another area or two that you're interested in. That way you've expressed your interest but don't seem naive.

Although a science degree isn't legally required to do IP litigation, at many firms it's a practical requirement. That's because the learning curve for a first associate is very steep. If you're trying to do IP litigation, and you don't know much about the technology or the law, the learning curve will be doubly steep, and the attorneys you're working with probably won't have time to get you up to speed in both areas.

All of the attorneys I know who do IP litigation without a science background started out as general litigators. After 5-20 years they transitioned into IP litigation, which was possible because they'd developed strong litigation skills, and they could use the younger attorneys (who had science backgrounds) to learn the science. (Or, what lockestockbarrel said.)

Also, as an aside, IP litigation is very demanding. The rare people who love it enjoy the constant intellectual challenge, the strategy and gamesmanship, and just basically being total workaholics.
posted by pitseleh at 12:21 PM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Let me speak from direct experience. I majored in history as an undergrad, hold no science or engineering degree, went to a T-14, and currently work as a patent litigator. At the first firm I worked at right out of law school, I found a pretty encouraging and welcoming environment for a non-tech person. Almost everyone in the group was an engineer, but one of the partners had the same background as me. Things worked well for me there, because it was a big firm and the IP group was of a reasonable size. That meant there was specialization within the group and case teams tended to be reasonably large - you had your serious techy dudes, and then you had folks like more, who focused more on procedure, legal research, writing, discovery, etc. If I had questions, I could always talk to one of the more techy guys.

Unfortunately, that firm seriously downsized back in March, and I got swept up in the mess. I recently started work at a much smaller patent litigation firm. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten this job, though I was honestly pretty surprised they made me an offer. With the exception of one partner (who has a journalism degree), everyone there is tech-savvy up the wazoo (I think it's 100% engineers). I've only been there a little while, but it's been a lot more challenging than my previous job. There's much less specialization and case teams are smaller (often solo), so I feel like I'm at a disadvantage compared to the engineers. Lately I've found myself sometimes wishing that I had pursued copyright law or some other area of litigation.

This is, of course, just my personal experience. You may be more scientifically attuned than I am - you might find yourself picking up a technical patent and grasping it with much greater ease than I often do. In that case, you should have no problems. Be upfront about your interests (as long, of course, as the firm has a patent litigation group). Of course, finding legal jobs is so damn hard these days that IP firms can be pickier - they can get the T-14 grad who also has the engineering degree if they want.

Don't let that discourage you, though. As I say, I landed a patent litigation job without a tech degree in a tough market. You can, too, if that's what you want. Hopefully if you get an offer, you'll have the chance to see if this is something you really want to do over your 2L summer. Good luck, and feel free to mefi mail me if you have any other questions.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:24 PM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

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