• Book Review: Turning Points

    by  • May 12, 2014 • Reviews

    If you’ve been up late probing the Interwebs for this kind of thing, you might have come across Turning Points: Changing Your Career from Science to Patent Law by Dustin Holloway. On Amazon at least, it’s about the only game in town.

    I bought it and read it, and will now tell you why you should do neither of those things.

    Let me first say that I wanted very much to like this book. (Failing that, I wanted at least to not mind this book.) It’s a rare space we occupy here, and Holloway is certainly right to offer advice to would-be science-lawyers. But I’m sorry to say this book misses the mark.

    Turning Points is, loosely, a combination of personal anecdotes and career advice mixed with a high-level primer on the patent system and what it’s like to work at a law firm. It’s also replete with sweeping generalizations and unflagged assumptions, some of which are downright dangerous to this audience.

    The one and only path

    “In the typical path,” we are told, “a scientist enters the law firm as a technical specialist and works there for approximately 1 year before law school begins,” while “[l]aw school itself takes 4 years of evening classes to complete.” Turning Points is full of bald, uncontextualized statements like this, all based on the silent assumption that the “typical” (if not only) path from science to law is to work as a technical specialist at a law firm, and then (optionally) attend law school later on, at night and on the firm’s dime. We’re also told that the only real place for these ex-scientists is in patent prosecution, not litigation, since a Ph.D. confers no career advantage for patent litigators. Point for point, this is all flat wrong.

    First, it’s not clear to me how many firms still offer to pay for law school as a hook to lure new technical specialists. At the very least it’s not universal, and to my knowledge this deal is becoming progressively harder to find. Law firms are not a charity enterprise, and I can’t imagine many are willing to foot a ~$200,000 bill to send you to school just so you can stop doing the job they hired you to do. Second, attending law school at night while working as a tech spec is far from a default path: I know a good number of scientists-turned-lawyers, and the vast majority of us attended law school full-time, during the day, and were self-financed. (See our interviews with Mark Bellermann, and Josh Weinger, for instance — and note that only a small minority of law schools offer night programs at all.) Third, there exists strong demand for lawyers with technical backgrounds in litigation and technology transactions as well as in patent prosecution, and I certainly feel that my life science Ph.D. is highly valued in my own biglaw IP litigation practice.

    There’s nothing wrong with Holloway offering his personal thoughts on his own experiences — and working as a tech spec before attending law school can be a good way to get a taste of the business before going whole-hog — but he does a true disservice to his audience by ignoring any other options.

    Curious advice

    Turning Points also offers advice on law school, a substantial portion of which is truly bogus. For instance, we’re told that your law school grades will suffer if you don’t speak up in class. (Not my experience: In the land of 100%-value final exams, how does speaking up help at all?) We’re told that “to read every case” is “next to impossible while working,” but that those wishing to succeed simply “must put in that effort.” And consider this holy grail of wishful thinking: “Certainly, academic pedigree matters, but a top performer from a state college will not be passed over in favor of a mediocre Ivy Leaguer.” Holloway forgot to cite his source, “The World As I Wish It Were.” The importance of the U.S. News rankings is hard to overstate.

    Holloway offers some advice for balancing work and law school, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, and he continues to ignore the elephant in the room — namely, that you need not be working during law school at all. He devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 5) to strategies for securing a law firm job, which in his case essentially boiled down to a lot of cold-mailing of resumes and using LinkedIn to set up lunches — which is probably what’s required given that he hadn’t gone to law school. (His listing of interview questions and potential answers is good, though somewhat out of place here.)

    Wait, who is this fellow?

    Holloway admits he “simply never enjoyed the practice of IP law” and “had no real passion for it.” Perhaps not the best candidate to write a book about transitioning from science to law. 

    Holloway includes some vignettes from folks working at law firms in various capacities, which could have used some editing to harmonize but are otherwise interesting. On the whole, Holloway paints a fairly bleak picture of law firm life, with scientists confined to patent prosecution (or “litigation support”), while in the “rat race to partnership,” “it is not uncommon for senior associates to work well into the evening every day of the week, simply to prove that they have what it takes.” (Sadly true.) He also includes some strange and unsupported statements about in-house lawyers, such as: “If a CEO departs, a chief counsel is a natural candidate to fill the role of CEO.” What? Says who? I mean, sure, it’s happened, but as a general rule? No.

    By this point — over two-thirds of the way through the book — I was really starting to wonder about Holloway’s own qualifications. He’d thus far played it pretty close to the chest, though it wasn’t hard to deduce that the path he described — tech spec to night school — was probably the one he himself took. But I admit to being shocked when he finally revealed the truth. Dr. Holloway dropped out of law school. He doesn’t have a J.D.  He doesn’t even work in law anymore, having spent “just over two years” at a law firm, a detour he was admits he considered “a waste of time” and “a blip that needs to be explained away.” In fact, Holloway admits he “simply never enjoyed the practice of IP law” and “had no real passion for it,” finding “the day-to-day practice of it to be rushed, deadline oriented, and sometimes repetitive.” One more: “If you hate writing patent applications and you hate meeting with clients, even the most stalwart persistence will crumble eventually.” Well then. Perhaps not the best candidate to write a book about transitioning from science to law. 

    Holloway includes some other material in this book that seems suspiciously like padding, including a rather large section detailing the anatomy of a patent, reviewing some key provisions of the patent statutes, and describing the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP), which he calls “a very useful guidebook.” Chapter 8, if you’re interested, is devoted to other careers (besides law) that scientists can pursue. This is interesting enough, though again somewhat out of place given the title. Given his relative focus on venture capital firms, I assume Dr. Holloway tried his hand there after his brief stint at a law firm and his single year of night school at Suffolk.


    To be fair, Turning Points isn’t a terrible book for what it is. But what it is is one person’s account of an ultimately unrewarding effort to break into law as a technical specialist, mixed in with some lessons learned about night school, the patent system, and general advice about job-seeking. The problem is there’s not much market for that kind of book, so Holloway targets Turning Points considerably more broadly. Consider the blurb: “Are you a scientist or engineer looking to make a career change? This book will help you understand what it’s like to work in patent law and how you can make the transition.”

    No, this book will present the author’s admittedly haphazard career path as the only one, and do its level best to conceal the fact that he in fact apparently ended up in law when all else failed, dropped out of law school, and didn’t even enjoy his brief time in IP law. When Holloway finally comes clean about this in Chapter 7 (“OK, you’ve got me!”) it’s a total credibility killer.


    As he reveals toward the end of the book, Dustin Holloway apparently fell into law by accident, pretty much hated it, quit after his first year of law school, and is now doing something else. At best, Turning Points grossly misstates its intended scope and omits its key assumptions. At worst, it’s flat wrong and affirmatively harmful to would-be patent lawyers currently working in science. Take with a grain of salt, or better yet, avoid. 

    * – – –


    PhD to JD to BigLaw (intellectual property litigation).