Are you interested in transitioning from a career in science to law?
How about to the top-ranked law school in the country?
Josh Weinger did exactly that, and in part 1 of this exclusive interview you’ll learn about the two big reasons he left science, and get a rare inside peek into the life of a scientist currently enrolled in law school.
Dr. Joshua Weinger did his undergraduate studies at Brandeis University and his PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale. After spending several years as a postdoc at Rockefeller University, he enrolled at Yale Law School where he has now just finished his second year.
With his pivotal 2L summer ahead of him, Josh joined us to talk about his own transition from science to law, his law school experience so far, and his own plans for the future.
Let’s start with your own career switch from science to law. When did you decide to go to law school?
I decided to go to law school about three years into my postdoc. I had considered leaving academic science toward the end of my PhD, but at that point I was not quite ready to move on. During my postdoc it became increasingly clear that I needed to get out of academics and find something else to do.
There certainly were aspects of science that I enjoyed. I liked doing bench work, and I loved being in high caliber intellectual environments. But there were too many things about it that were making me miserable.
I’m sure that your readers are familiar with the systemic problems in science and the mundane problems of doing science and don’t need me to rehash them here. However, there were two things about academic science that I found particularly unpleasant, and that are relevant to my decision to go to law school rather than pursue other options.
What did you dislike about academic science?
The biggest problem for me was the pace of achievement. I was fairly successful both in grad school and as postdoc, which meant I published something decent every couple of years. The rest of the time I struggled with the typical string of failures, and at the end of most days and weeks in the lab I felt like I had accomplished little and had made no progress since the week before. Because publications are essentially the only things that count in academics, there is little in the way of incremental progress – however well experiments seem to be going, none of it matters until there is a paper, and the rug can be pulled out at any time. A successful scientist has to be a person who can be emotionally sustained through extended droughts by infrequent big accomplishments. I am not that kind of person.
The other thing about science that was difficult for me was the isolation. Even when part of a group, scientists spend a lot of time working alone. I spent most of my scientific career working among great groups of talented students and postdocs, but they usually felt more like loose communities rather than teams. Career progression is based largely on accomplishments for which a person can claim primary credit, so students and postdocs spend most of their time working alone on their own projects. There is not that much genuine teamwork. Even though I routinely interacted with lab-mates in many different ways, I found this organization of projects to be intellectually isolating.
So why law school?
When I realized that it was time to move on from academics, I wasn’t really interested in scientific jobs in industry. This left me considering the many “alternative careers” for science PhDs. I was looking for a career with a faster pace, shorter term goals, and more interpersonal interaction. Law seemed to offer those features. I also wanted to find something that was very different from science, but in which my science background would be valuable. I had invested so much time developing that background, and it was an important part of my identity. Law is unlike science in many ways, and there is demand for scientifically trained lawyers so my background is valued and respected.
Finally, law had always been conceptually interesting for me. Since early in graduate school I thought of law school as something I would probably do if I won the lottery and never had to work again. I was confident that I would like law school, but I was less certain about wanting to be a lawyer. When I got to the point in science that I needed a change, I realized that being a lawyer did have appeal, and if it turned out not to be enjoyable, there are plenty of other things that law school graduates can do.
How did you decide on Yale Law School?
I was pretty surprised to end up at Yale, but after considering my options I decided that it was the school at which I would be happiest.
I only applied to about a half-dozen law schools. I was living in New York at the time and I grew up in Boston, and I knew that I did not want to leave the Northeast, so initially Harvard and the New York schools were my main focus. I only gave Yale serious consideration after I was accepted.
I did my PhD at Yale, so I already knew that I liked New Haven despite its sometimes dodgy reputation. I also already knew that Yale is a special place in general. When I visited I saw that the students were serious but more relaxed than students elsewhere. It certainly didn’t hurt that Yale is consistently ranked #1.
In the end it came down to three main factors: the students at Yale seemed happier than at any of the other schools I visited, the intellectual environment seemed to be outstanding, and as the top-ranked school the career prospects were excellent. I was also still having nagging doubts about leaving academia, and Yale produces far more legal academics than any other law school.
Are you enjoying law school? What do you like most about it?
I love law school. At this point in my life I know how much of a luxury it is to be able to devote an extended period of time to learning without having to produce anything, so I really appreciate it.
I have always enjoyed being a student, and being a law student is no different. My schedule is flexible, I get to pursue studies that I find interesting and make my own priorities, and I have met many smart and interesting people.
Anything you dislike?
The things I dislike are all of the mundane things that you probably expect: sometimes there is an overwhelming amount of reading, exam periods are stressful, and at times school can be a grind. Overall these are pretty minor problems, especially if you can keep them in perspective.
What sort of classes are you taking at YLS, and how do you choose them? Do you have a heavy focus on intellectual property?
I am taking a wide breadth of classes, with a slight emphasis on intellectual property and IP-related courses, but certainly not an exclusive focus on IP. In choosing classes my top priority is to get a broad legal education, and my second priority is to get a solid grounding in IP. Yale’s IP offerings are somewhat limited, but sufficient to get that solid grounding, so I’m not too concerned. Certainly as far as IP goes, I don’t think I need to become a specialist while in law school – there is plenty of time for that after I finish.
Aside from IP, I have taken plenty of “black letter” law classes that many employers expect to see on a transcript, like property and evidence. I have also taken some more esoteric classes, such as the seminar I took on the constitutional law of the civil jury trial. (It was a great class!)
Overall, I’m trying not to worry too much about having the perfect transcript. I am just trying to take classes that seem both important and interesting.
Your 2L summer starts in mere days — what are your plans for this summer and beyond?
This summer I will be a summer associate in the Boston office of a large law firm. It is a general practice firm that does a substantial amount of IP work. Over the summer I hope to work in both their IP litigation and non-litigation IP groups, as well as try some non-IP work.
My current plan for after law school is to practice at a firm like the one I will be at this summer. Of course, that plan is not set in stone, and I will be paying close attention this summer to whether a big firm seems like a work environment that I will like.
In the second half of Josh’s interview, where we discuss the biggest changes in going from science to law school and the pressure for scientists to practice patent law, as well as his (surprising) 1L summer job, and the one thing Josh wishes he’d known when applying…
Thinking of law school? We’ve been there. Check out our article Three Reasons Law School Will Surprise a Scientist.
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