Throughout graduate school, you’ve likely had to defend your research succinctly with the appropriate data. Maybe your advisor has even mentioned how well you argue your position (perhaps sometimes to a fault in order to get your dissertation approved). Although you may not have realized it, there are a surprising number of skills that directly translate from your time in graduate school to the practice of law.
Anyone coming out of a PhD program is surprisingly well prepared for law school if they are willing to spend another three years in school, and there are even some fields of study that will allow you to find a job at a law firm directly out of your PhD program.
If your PhD is in a non-technical field such as the humanities or social sciences, there is good news and bad news… the good news is that your expertise has trained you exceedingly well to be a top-notch lawyer and you should have no trouble getting into a very respectable law school. The bad news is that you’ll probably need to go directly to law school after you finish your PhD; most law firms will not have a position of interest for you until you have your law degree.
If your PhD is in a technical field, particularly in engineering, computer science, or one of the life sciences, you may qualify for a position as a technical specialist/scientific advisor at law firms that have intellectual property practices. This position will not only provide a comfortable salary, but many law firms will sponsor their technical specialist/scientific advisors, letting you attend law school part-time for free while still working as a technical specialist/scientific advisor and collecting a salary. Even better, most firms will credit you for your time at the firm while attending law school so that when you finish your degree, you will join the firm at a salary significantly higher than that of a first year associate.
Who are the Employers?
If you are going straight to law school, then your process is pretty clear-cut: take the LSAT and then apply to law school. Those with a technical background should look for opportunities as a technical specialist/scientific advisor. Law firms that are looking for technical specialist/scientific advisors generally require the standard fare of resume, transcripts, cover letter, and a writing sample. For the writing sample, you should generally keep it 4-5 pages long, make sure you are the only author (so not one of your multi-author academic publications), and it’s best if you cover a current topic in the field of your expertise.
Regarding to which law firms you apply, you should apply to quite a few (at least 20) and don’t rely on posted openings. For any law firm that catches your eye, do a quick check to see if they employ any technical or scientific advisors, which is usually in their “people” section of their website. If so, then send in your materials to the contact person for employment, which can usually be found in their “careers” section. Finally, don’t be discouraged by failure; keep applying because there are plenty of law firms in the sea.
If you are invited in for an interview, it will likely be a pretty standard two-step process consisting of an initial phone interview followed by a more in-depth in person interview. They are not likely going to grill your knowledge of the law, but you should at least be familiar with the very basics of patents and patent protection. The in person interview is likely to be a very long, if not all day affair, so be prepared to meet a lot of people and charm them with your sparkling personality.
Technical specialists/scientific advisors are usually required to take and pass the patent bar within a year of starting (all of which will be paid for by the law firm). After passing the patent bar, there is an instant promotion to patent agent. Some law firms are happy to employ you long term as a patent agent, while others will sponsor you to attend law school part-time while remaining with the firm as a patent agent, so this should be something to bring up during the interviewing process. After the four year process of attending law school part-time, many law firms will credit you for your time spent at the firm, so you will enter as a 3rd/4th year associate instead of a 1st year associate. From there, the jump to partner can vary depending on the firm and your productivity, but the average wait is around 9-11 years.
Law firms require a certain number of hours spent doing work for clients, otherwise known as billable hours. These billable hour requirements generally range between 1700 and 2300 hours per year. Just for some perspective, once you factor in things like a lunch break and other non-client related work throughout the day, 50 hours of work per week can roughly translate to 1760 hours per year.
While 50-80 total hours of work per week is not unheard of for full time employees, most firms that would sponsor you to attend law school part-time will allow for scaled back work hours while you are a student. For example, the intellectual property law firm of Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper, and Scinto claims on its website that technical advisors can expect to work ~35 hours per week at the firm while attending law school.
Although pay will vary depending on the size of the law firm and geographical location, (highest pay will be in firms of 100+ employees in major cities), a reasonable expectation for compensation would be:
~$85-95K salary for technical specialists/scientific advisors
~$100-115K salary for patent agents (passed the patent bar)
~$135-160K salary for first year associates (passed the patent bar and have law degree)
~$175-200K salary for third/fourth year associates (passed the patent bar and have law degree)
On top of these salaries some firms will offer bonuses to technical specialists/scientific advisors and patent agents (although the bonus will be lower than bonuses to associates.) At the most generous firms, associate bonuses can range from $10-60K.
For patent agents that choose not to go to law school, suitable positions can be found in intellectual property law firms, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, technology transfer offices, and consulting firms that specialize in intellectual property.
Those that decide to go through the trouble of getting a law degree after a PhD may not be too eager to leave that lucrative law firm position. If the law firm life isn’t for you, the PhD/JD combo will put you in a good position to land a position as an in-house counsel within a corporation. This is especially true for businesses that are related to your field of expertise, e.g. a PhD in molecular biology would be well suited to serving as in-house counsel at a biotech company.