This is the conclusion of our interview with Biochemistry PhD Josh Weinger, who has just completed his second year at Yale Law School. (If you haven’t already, check out part 1 of this interview, where Josh explained why he decided to leave academic science, how he chose YLS, and how his experience has been so far.)
What’s been the biggest change in going to law school from a graduate degree in science?
I don’t think I can identify a single biggest change – more like a million small changes. Some examples:
I went from being an expert at what I was doing to a complete novice. The learning curve at the beginning of law school, particularly in the first semester, is extremely steep. I found it exciting, but it was definitely an adjustment.
I went from talking about science almost all of the time to almost never talking about it. (And now I talk about law all the time!)
One change I did not anticipate was that I have had to completely change the way I read. As a scientist I would spend a couple of hours reading a ten-page research paper to understand it at a deep level and appreciate the nuances. In law school I would have been quickly overwhelmed if I read that way, and my reading speed has dramatically increased as a result of the reading load.
Finally, I am at the extreme high end of the age distribution of my peers. It has not been as much of a problem as I feared it might, but it does become apparent frequently (such as when a reference to 80’s pop culture is met with blank stares).
How important is it to you to use your science background in the practice of law?
I would prefer to use my science background because it’s a valuable asset and I invested so much in it. However, I have tried very hard to at least consider other options, especially because I don’t yet have first-hand experience to know whether I will actually like practicing patent law. If it turns out that I don’t enjoy it, I will be open to other things.
Have you felt constrained to specialize in patent law because of your science background?
I have not felt constrained to patent law at all, but so far of course I’ve just been in school.
Things may be different at a firm, but I don’t know to what extent. At school there has really been no pressure to pursue particular types of law based on my background. I think this is true generally for people coming from all sorts of backgrounds. It seems that if I wanted to make a completely clean break from science and go in a totally new direction, it would not be terribly difficult.
To illustrate, last summer, after my 1L year, I was an intern at a United States Attorney’s office doing criminal prosecution. The school encouraged me to do that kind of internship, the Department of Justice hired me, and my supervising attorneys were all very supportive. It was an outstanding summer, and I don’t think I would have much trouble pursuing a career as a prosecutor if I were so inclined.
And not a patent prosecutor — a real prosecutor! Sounds like many options are open to you.
Definitely, though I should mention two caveats.
The first is that many people assume by default that I will go into patent law (or some other area where the technical background is relevant, such as science policy). Therefore, if my aspirations were different, I would have to explain that frequently, particularly to potential employers, and I have in fact had to emphasize that I am considering other options.
The second is that with a reasonably prestigious science PhD, I think that getting a decent job in patent law is not quite so dependent upon the prestige of one’s law degree (though prestige is still important). But to go into any other area of law, law school prestige is much more important.
Would you recommend law school to another scientist?
I would definitely recommend law school – as I said, being a student is great. The bigger question is whether I would recommend being a lawyer. Since I am at such an early stage of my legal career, I don’t know how valuable my advice is in this area. (If you’re interested, check out Science to Law’s interview with Mark Bellermann, a PhD scientist and partner at intellectual property law boutique Brake Hughes Bellermann.)
Any cautions for scientists thinking about making the switch?
One thing to keep in mind is that law school is extremely expensive. The availability of financial aid or other funding (e.g., from an employer) and one’s attitude toward going into potentially massive debt are important considerations when thinking about law school.
On a practical level, because law school is so expensive and the legal job market is so tight right now, it is probably only a good idea for a scientist to go to law school in one of two situations:
First, if you can get into a highly ranked law school — preferably in the top tier (“T14”), and certainly not below the “second tier.” Law school ranking is critical to job options after school. (That’s the main US News Law Schools rankings, not their sub-ranking of IP programs — see our commentary on the IP law specialty rankings for more discussion on those.)
The second situation would be if you have a job already lined up, such as at a firm you already work for. Over the last few years, graduates of lower ranked schools seem to have had a terrible time finding jobs that enable them to pay off their loans. PhD scientists looking to go into patent law may be a special case, but I don’t know to what extent this is true.
Did you ever consider just taking the patent bar exam and being a patent agent or examiner?
I did consider taking the patent bar exam, working at a firm as a technology specialist, and taking advantage of a night school program.
I decided to go straight to law school full time for a number of reasons.
As a technology specialist, patent agent, or patent examiner with a PhD, there is a limit to your potential career advancement. At a firm doing patent work, the lawyers will always run the show, and non-lawyer PhD’s will always be support staff. That said, becoming a patent agent might be a great option if you are looking for an interesting job that pays reasonably well and is not too demanding in terms of hours, stress, etc.
As you mentioned, some law firms offer “night school” programs wherein one works as a student associate during the day and goes to law school by night. Did you consider this? If so, why didn’t you pursue it?
Night school programs are another interesting option. These programs have two main benefits: first, you have a job lined up for after law school before you even begin. Second, law school is partially, possibly completely free. These are huge benefits, and I do not want to trivialize them as I explain why a night school program was not a good option for me.
I believe that most law firms offering these programs expect you to work for them as a technology specialist for at least a year or two before they will agree to fund your law school. Sending someone to law school is a significant investment for a firm, and they want to know what they are getting. Firms then expect you to work at least part time while in school, so law school usually takes at least four years to complete when done in this way. My age became an issue. As it is, I will be 35 when I finish law school. If I added another two years of work at a firm and an extra year to finish school, I would be close to 40 before finishing.
Firms paying for school also expect a commitment to remain at the firm for some period of time. This generally means a commitment to patent law. I wanted to keep my options open to do other things. Night school programs are only possible at law schools that have night programs and allow part-time students. Few if any of the top law schools have such programs. This is not as much of a problem for someone who knows that they want to go into patent law and has a job lined up, but it does limit one’s options.
Finally, a part time student can never fully immerse themselves in law school. I think you miss something valuable by not going full time.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known when you were applying to law school?
I wish I had thought a little harder about how much debt I would be in after school, and how old I would be. I probably would have made the same decision, but in retrospect I think I was a little too casual in my approach to the debt and age issues.
What’s one step a grad student, post doc, or practicing scientist should take to determine whether law is right for them?
To determine whether law school is right for you, I would recommend talking to as many lawyers as possible, particularly ones doing the types of law you are considering. Try to find lawyers who will speak openly and honestly, and try to include some lawyers who are unhappy in their careers. Take their complaints seriously, and think about how their problems would affect you.
Any tips to improve a law school application?
To improve your law school application, the single most important thing you can do is get a great LSAT score. I think there are lots of ways to improve your application, but aside from going back in time and improving your undergraduate GPA, none of them will have the impact of a really stellar LSAT score.
All in all, do you think you made the right decision to leave the post-doc?
I definitely made the right decision to leave my post-doc and get out of academic science.
Within a couple of months of leaving the lab, I felt as if a huge weight had lifted. I had escaped from years of expectations of friends, family, and scientific mentors to pursue an academic career, and it was emotionally liberating. I don’t know to what extent those expectations actually existed, but the perception of them definitely existed in my mind and affected me on a daily basis.
So far I think I made the right decision to go to law school rather than pursue other options, but I think the real test will be whether I enjoy working as a lawyer. Only time will tell.
Thanks so much, Josh! Best of luck at your 2L summer position, in 3L at YLS, and beyond.
Thinking of law school? We’ve been there. Check out our article Three Reasons Law School Will Surprise a Scientist.
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