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Amid layoffs, law firms give scientists power of attorney

Electrical engineer Saswat Misra (left) and chemist Raymond Doss attend law school while they work for Ropes & Gray. Photo: Buck Ennis


Despite the layoffs of nearly 10,000 lawyers in New York because of the financial crisis, one patch of the legal world never stopped hiring. Naturally, there's a catch: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to land the job, helps. So does being a chemical engineer, a pharmacologist or any other type of scientist. It's patent law.

Saswat Misra, 31, holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Cornell University and was conducting research for the U.S. Army when he was offered a job at law firm Ropes & Gray in 2008.

“Law school wasn't even on the radar,” says Mr. Misra, now in his second year at Columbia Law School, paid for by the firm. He was hired into Ropes & Gray's technical adviser program, designed specifically to turn scientists into patent lawyers.

Patent work requires an intensive scientific background to fully understand the mechanics of an invention or the nuances of a technological breakthrough, and to ascertain whether it's being infringed upon. The stakes are higher than they've ever been: Pharmaceutical companies earn billions from their drug patents, and software firms spend heavily to defend unique processes and program features. Microsoft, for example, is currently defending itself against an estimated 50 patent cases.

“If you have a case involving computer chips or patenting the human genome, it's very difficult to manage without somebody on your team who's both a Ph.D. and a lawyer,” says Stephen Younger, president of the New York State Bar Association and a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler. “There aren't enough lawyers with backgrounds in the hard sciences.”

The patent and intellectual property field provides a bright spot in an otherwise dismal legal job market.

“It does seem counterintuitive that a firm would actually pay someone to go to law school right now, when there are so many new lawyers out there,” says Sheila Foster, a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at Fordham Law School.

But it's a reflection of the need: The number of annual patent applications is soaring, as innovations in biotech, software, nanotechnology and other areas have accelerated. Last year, 485,000 patent applications were filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a 28% increase over 2004.

And it's easier to turn a scientist into a lawyer than the other way around, says Ed Weisz, a partner at intellectual property firm Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane who went to law school after earning a degree in electrical engineering. “It's much harder to sit for an exam in relative physics. Trust me,” he says.

While law firms boasting large patent practices have recruited scientists out of Ph.D. programs since the 1980s, the number of doctoral recruits appears to be growing. Ropes & Gray's technical adviser program currently has 42 people companywide, up from 30 in 2008, according to Joseph Guiliano, a Manhattan-based partner and leader of the firm's intellectual property practice.

Of the 16 technical advisers in the firm's Manhattan office, 10 are currently in law school, attending either Columbia, New York University or Fordham.

“The kind of top-tier science talent that we seek is hard to find in combination with a law degree,” says Mr. Guiliano. “So [the program] serves a critical purpose for us in serving our clients in those areas.”

Others with similar training programs include San Francisco-based Morrison Foerster, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and Manhattan boutique Fitzpatrick Cella Harper & Scinto.

At Fitzpatrick Cella, three employees are currently attending Fordham Law, courtesy of the firm, and five lawyers recently finished the program.

Fordham usually has a smattering of science folks pursuing law degrees, says Ms. Foster. In this year's entering class of 478 students, 16 hold master of science degrees and five have Ph.D.'s, in fields ranging from computer science to neurobiology to aerospace engineering.

Raymond Doss, 32, who holds a chemistry Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology, is among them. Now in his third year of law studies in Fordham's evening program, he also works full-time as a patent agent at Ropes & Gray. Meanwhile, his classmates at Fordham with liberal arts backgrounds are stuck chasing after scarce positions.

“I know I lucked out,” Mr. Doss says. “I get to talk about science and think about science, and all I have to do is become a lawyer.”

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