Chemistry and the Law
Lawyers act as both advocates and advisors representing the interests of their clients and advising them about their legal rights and obligations. Whether acting as an advocate or an advisor, all attorneys research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances and needs of their clients. There are also many opportunities for professionals to work in this field without attending law school or becoming a lawyer.
The growing field of intellectual property—helping to protect clients’ claims to copyrights, innovations, product designs, and computer programs—offers a variety of opportunities for attorneys who specialize in science and chemistry.
Related Career: Forensic Chemistry
Opportunities for Chemists in the Legal Profession
Some people find that working for in industry is the best fit for them. Many lawyers with a chemistry background work for chemical and life sciences companies. In-house lawyers tend to have a more regular schedule and become more intimately familiar with one area of technology. They also see how that technology fits into the company's business plan. At some companies, a scientist can transition from a bench researcher position to a patent liaison position and eventually to a patent agent position. As “house counsel,” they usually advise the company concerning legal issues related to its business activities that include patents, government regulations, contracts with other companies, and property interests. Some lawyers also work for universities, national laboratories, and government agencies.
Lawyers specializing in chemical and environmental law may represent manufacturers or special interest groups, waste disposal companies, or construction firms in their dealings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state agencies. These lawyers help clients prepare and file for licenses and applications for approval before certain activities are permitted to occur. They can also ensure that their clients are compliant with all laws and regulations.
The majority of lawyers with an interest in science work in the field of intellectual property—helping to protect clients’ claims to copyrights, innovations, product designs, and computer programs—offers a variety of opportunities for attorneys with a specialization in science and chemistry.
The field of intellectual property and patent law employs patent attorneys who have the specialized qualifications necessary for representing clients in obtaining patents and for acting in all matters and procedures relating to patent law and practice, such as filing an opposition. A patent attorney helps the client obtain patents and avoid patent infringement. During the development of a new drug, for example, the patent attorney studies the patents owned by other parties and advises the client regarding the scope and validity of these patents so that the client’s drug development work avoids infringing on valid patents of all other parties. Patent attorneys must have the technical background to understand the inventions they are supporting. Intellectual property law firms also employ many professionals who conduct background research, investigate new technical areas, and even help draft patents, without being attorneys themselves.
While some legal careers require successful completion of law school and passing the bar exam, many do not. This progression is most clearly seen in the patent (intellectual property) sector.
If you earn a technical degree (bachelor's degree in natural sciences, technology, or engineering), you can begin work immediately as a paralegal, legal assistant, patent specialist, searcher, or other entry-level position.
To become a patent agent, you must have a technical degree and must either work for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for three years as a patent examiner or pass the USPTO registration examination (officially titled Examination for Registration to Practice in Patent Cases Before the United States Patent and Trademark Office). Patent agents can write and prosecute patents, but cannot practice any other kind of law.
Becoming a patent attorney (or other kind of lawyer) usually takes seven years of full-time study after high school—four years of undergraduate study, followed by three years of law school. Acceptance by a law school depends on the applicant’s ability to demonstrate an aptitude for the study of law, usually through undergraduate grades, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the quality of the applicant’s undergraduate school, prior work experience, and sometimes a personal interview. However, law schools vary in the weight they place on each of these and other factors. To meet the needs of students who can attend only part time, a number of law schools have night or part-time divisions, and many people work for a law firm during the day and attend law school at night.
Patent attorneys can provide legal services include advising a client on matters relating to the licensing of the invention; whether to appeal a decision by the Patent Office to a court; whether to sue for infringement; whether someone is infringing upon the claims of a client's issued patent; and conversely, whether a client is infringing the claims of someone else's issued patent. They can also provide legal services outside the Patent Office, if practicing within the state in which they are licensed. Specific requirements for vary by state or territory.
Patent agents must pass a certification test. Patent attorneys must graduate from law school and pass the patent bar exam. (See Education section.)
Lawyers do most of their work in offices, law libraries, and courtrooms. They sometimes meet in clients’ places of business. They may travel to attend meetings, gather evidence, and appear before courts, legislative bodies, and other authorities. They also may face particularly heavy pressure and work long hours when a case is being tried. Preparation for court includes understanding the latest laws and judicial decisions. Salaried lawyers usually have structured work schedules. Lawyers who are in private practice or those who work for large firms may work irregular hours, including weekends, while conducting research, conferring with clients, or preparing briefs during non-office hours. Lawyers often work long hours; of those who work full time, about a third work 50 or more hours per week.
- Research skills are essential for understanding both the science involved and all relevant legal information.
- Analytical skills are crucial, as is the ability to analyze large amounts of information, determine which factors are relevant, and propose multiple solutions.
- Legal professionals must be able to remain objective when explaining the facts and the relative benefits and risks of each course of action in order to allow others to make the decision as to the appropriate course of action.
- Communication skills are vital. They must be able to write quickly and accurately, while being precise and specific. They must be able to clearly present relevant data both in writing and orally.
- Interpersonal skills are required to build trust and respect of clients.
The law field has numerous opportunities, and people with specific expertise have opportunities to move up. While some legal professionals go to law school directly after their undergraduate education, about one third of choose to work in the legal field for a period of time before going back to law school. Relocation can be difficult, since regulations and licensing requirements vary by state or territory.
- ACS Committee on Patents and Related Matters
- ACS Division of Chemistry and the Law
- American Intellectual Property Law Association
- American Bar Association - Intellectual Property Law
- National Association of Patent Practitioners
- Intellectual Property Association
- World Intellectual Property Organization
Future Employment Trends
Competition for job openings continues to be high because of the large number of students graduating from law school each year. Graduates with superior academic records from highly-regarded law schools will have the best job opportunities. Employment opportunities in intellectual property and patent law are more favorable for those with strong technical backgrounds. Job opportunities often are adversely affected by cyclical swings in the economy, as demand declines for discretionary legal services, and corporations are less likely to litigate when cash flow is constricted.
Is This Career a Good Fit for You?
The practice of law involves a great deal of responsibility. Individuals planning careers in law should like to work with people and be able to win the respect and confidence of their clients, associates, and the public. Perseverance, creativity, and reasoning ability are essential for lawyers who analyze complex cases and handle new and unique legal problems.
People who are trained as scientists are well-equipped for this type of work. Patents in the life sciences can involve highly sophisticated inventions, and people with scientific backgrounds have an advantage when it comes to understanding the material.
People who work at the intersection of science and the law must be comfortable working in both domains. They must be able to understand complex technical issues and put them in the context of current applicable regulations.
Job growth is at same pace as average employment growth. Competition is intense.
- Environmental Law
- In-house Counsel
- Patent Law
- Lawyer: Four-year college degree, three years of law school, & passing bar exam
- Some careers don't require a law degree (e.g. patent agent, law enforcement professional, forensic chemist, patent examiners)
Median annual wage: $113,530 (2012)
Careers A to Z
- Academic Professional Staff
- Agricultural and Food Chemistry
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- Chemical Engineering
- Chemical Information Management Specialist
- Chemical Technology
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- Chemistry and the Law
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- Environmental Protection
- Forensic Chemistry
- Formulation Chemistry
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- High School Chemistry Teacher
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