Chemistry & the Law
Anyone planning a career in law should like to work with people and be adept at winning the respect and confidence of others. They should be able to handle pressure well and be willing to work longer-than-average hours.
Typical Job Functions
People who are trained as scientists are well-equipped for the practice of law. Perseverance, creativity, and reasoning ability are essential for lawyers who analyze complex cases and handle new and unique legal problems. 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 and solving problems in the context of current applicable regulations.
One of the primary responsibilities of attorneys is to advise clients and represent them and their legal rights. Skills that attorneys in chemistry-related fields need for the job include:
- Research - Essential for understanding both the science involved and all relevant legal information
- Analytical - Must be able to analyze large amounts of information, determine which factors are relevant, and propose multiple solutions
- Objectivity - To explain the facts and relative benefits and risks associated with potential courses of action, then support clients in the course they choose.
- Communication skills - Must be able to quickly and accurately present relevant data, both in writing and orally.
- Interpersonal skills - To build trust and respect of clients.
Many lawyers with a chemistry background work for chemical and life sciences companies. At some companies, a scientist can transition from a bench researcher position to a patent liaison position and eventually to a patent agent position.
Following are common career paths for lawyers with a background in chemistry.
As “house counsel,” these lawyers usually provide legal advice concerning patents, government regulations, contracts with other companies, and property interests. These lawyers may work for chemical and life sciences companies, 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 federal and state agencies. They help clients prepare and file for licenses and applications, and generally ensure that their clients are compliant with all laws and regulations.
The field of intellectual property and patent law offers a variety of opportunities for attorneys with a specialization in science and chemistry. These lawyers help to protect clients’ claims to copyrights, innovations, product designs, and computer programs. Patent attorneys must have the technical background to understand the inventions they are supporting. Intellectual property law firms also employ non-attorneys who conduct background research, investigate new technical areas, and even help draft patents.
About one-third of legal professionals choose to work in the legal field for a period of time before going back to law school. Relocation for legal professionals can be difficult, since regulations and licensing requirements vary by state or territory.
Competition for job openings as an attorney is high due to the large number of students graduating from law school each year. Employment opportunities in intellectual property and patent law are more favorable for those with strong technical backgrounds.
There are many opportunities in the legal field that don’t require attending law school or becoming a lawyer.
- Paralegal, legal assistant, patent specialist, searcher, or other entry-level position - Requires a technical degree (bachelor's in natural sciences, technology, or engineering)
- Patent agent - Requires a technical degree; also 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. Note: Patent agents can write and prosecute patents, but cannot practice any other kind of law.
- Patent attorney (or other kind of lawyer) - Requires law school. Patent attorneys may provide legal services outside the Patent Office. Specific requirements vary by state or territory.