From pipets to patents
September 28, 2012 8:08 AM   Subscribe

From lab tech to law office. Help me be awesome!

Did a B.Sc, was a lab tech for a couple of years. Wanted something new and went on a job hunt. Extended networking got me talking to a partner of a small (4 person) IP law firm today, who seemed very impressed with my technical background. Got another partner to speak with me, he liked me too, and said he could see me going more as a tech consultant or paralegal-ish route depending on where I want to go. Got a call about 4 hours later offering me an entry-level (admin assistant) position, volunteering, for two weeks, and we will decide after that whether they'll keep me full time. I start this coming Monday.

I want them to keep me, of course! Didn't think the trial period would be this short though. I do not have any law background (did a lot of scientific research, which is what sold them on me - hence the talk about maybe developing me as a tech consultant if I want to go that route). Other than the usual show up early, be friendly, hardworking, etc., what will help me be the awesomest newbie in a law office? I am planning on looking up some refreshers on the more complex parts of MS Office and googling as much about IP law as I can. I'd appreciate any other tips!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Use your research skills to look up and solve every computer problem this little office has. I got a $30k raise simply because other people didn't know how to use help files and/or Google in my old job.
posted by xingcat at 8:10 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience, the expected wardrobe is very diferent between a lab environment and a law office. You might want to make sure you have appropriate clothing.
posted by blurker at 8:14 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have any libraries with access to Westlaw or Lexis near you, or a way of speaking with a law librarian? Getting a primer in common research sources or guides for legal issues would be a good start.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:15 AM on September 28, 2012

They want you to work for free? Surely they can match your current hourly rate.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:15 AM on September 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

I am a former IT worker (last post was Lockheed Martin), now a lawyer at a mid-size regional firm.

If you are an administrative assistant (which to me means a file clerk or a secretary), you really will not need any legal background. No lawyer in the firm is going to ask your opinion about the application of the doctrine of equivalents to their patent case, but they will ask for copies of the pleadings, preparation of hearing binders, and that sort of thing. So, the learning is going to be more about administrative issues e.g. what is a "motion", how do I e-file a pleading, et cetera.

If you could develop into a tech consultant/IT head, that would probably pay more and be more interesting to you. If you can be helpful with the tech issues (and they seem to have an eye on this), chances are you can move into such a position sooner rather than later. You are in a good position to do so because in my experience, most lawyers are not technically inclined - but this is changing. Biggest issue: e-discovery. Many law firms are making basic mistakes on these points, so you may wish to read articles about that. If you find a new article in the ABA Tech news, forward it to the partner who supervises you. It shows that you are engaged in what the firm is doing.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:20 AM on September 28, 2012

hey want you to work for free? Surely they can match your current hourly rate.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:15 AM on September 28 [+] [!]

Yeah, I wouldn't call working without pay at a for-profit business "volunteering." I call that "getting screwed with your pants on." Big red flag there.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:22 AM on September 28, 2012

Surely this "volunteer" aspect is against the employment standards laws in your jurisdiction...and surely a law firm would know that. What else might they try to get away with once hired? You sound like a good prospect for a more reasonable employer...keep looking!
posted by Pomo at 8:30 AM on September 28, 2012

Somebody with a technical background coming into a law office should be starting out as a technical consultant, not being asked to work for free as an admin while having the prospect of someday in the indefinite future being a technical consultant dangled in front of her.

I know the job market is rough out there, but if you want to go the legal route, and you have a science background, you can do a lot better than the "job" you have lined up.
posted by deanc at 9:58 AM on September 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ten-year veteran of IT support in the legal industry here: what they've proposed is unorthodox to say the least. I've NEVER heard of a firm asking someone to work for free as a "trial" - either they hire you or they don't. The closest thing I've ever heard of to the situation you describe is someone coming on as a consultant, then getting hired as a permanent employee after a probationary period.

That being said: the biggest difference with working for lawyers (vs. working for, y'know, anybody else) is the level of seamless, decorum-heavy service you're expected to provide. The lawyers earn the cash - they are The Talent - and I've always treated them as such.
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:05 AM on September 28, 2012

Lawyer here. I'm not going to give legal advice, but I wouldn't "volunteer" to do this. Not any more than they are likely to "volunteer" to represent you in trial, all day every day for two whole weeks for free. And if they tell you, "trust me, I'm a lawyer" put both hands on your wallet and back away slowly.

Once you arrange an appropriate salary or fee for the work you're going to do, you can probably make room for yourself at a good firm. The secretarial stuff is trivial if you are careful. Pay attention to detail. If you're taking a message, get the names right (make sure you get the proper spelling & title), and don't bungle the phone number. You have no idea how aggravating and costly that is to us, and few people in the market can even do that. Learn not only how the file system works, but how the documents are organized in their paper files.

Figure out Word settings, and bone up on useful typography. If you can figure out how to make what others wrote look the way they're supposed to (e.g., proper size, and line-spacing that matches the line numbering, etc.) you're ahead of the curve.

A lot of lawyers are operating in the search-engine Stone Age by using ineffective plain-english search terms. If the firm has Westlaw or Lexis, acquire the free materials necessary to learn how to construct effective search queries can be helpful. You might not appreciate how helpful since you can't review the results for relevance as well, but a lot of lawyers don't even know how that you can search for phrases within x words of each other in the same sentence, etc.

If they file documents at the court themselves, rather than through a service or electronically, learn how the originals and copies need to be collected and organized for filing with the court clerk. (They are notoriously persnickety.) Then learn how and where to file.

If you're there long enough to be worth your while, consider becoming a notary public. That is often useful. Plus, you can sometimes make good money on the side with that racket.

But seriously. Get paid. If they won't pay you, they're just tight-fisted shysters who you'll hate working for in the long-term. Better not to work at all, and not get paid, then to work and not get paid.
posted by Hylas at 4:42 PM on September 28, 2012

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