Attention all scientists considering a career in patent law! We’re delighted to bring you an interview with Mark Bellermann, a PhD scientist and principal of the patent law firm Brake Hughes Bellermann LLP.
Dr. Bellermann did his undergraduate work at Yale, and holds a PhD in Atomic Physics from SUNY Stony Brook as well as a JD from Columbia Law School. Dr. Bellermann works chiefly in patent prosecution: His practice emphasizes preparing and prosecuting applications, preparing opinions regarding the infringement, validity, and value of patents, and client counseling on intellectual property matters.
He joined us to talk about his own path from science to patent law, as well as to share advice and tips for those making the transition today.
Let’s start with your own career: In the mid 1990s, you were doing a PhD in Atomic Physics at Stony Brook. At what point did you decide to go to law school? What was the thinking there?
I didn’t think I had the necessary patience or focus to do academic research for living. Instead, I wanted to use physics as a tool to do something else. Physics in a corporate setting seemed attractive to me, and I also became interested in the combination of physics and medicine (e.g., MRI or radiation work). I also had a friend who was a partner at a midsize Manhattan IP boutique, and who was always telling me that I needed to ditch physics and go to law school to become a patent attorney. He must have been in his 60s at the time and had had a great career that included working as a patent examiner, going to night school at George Washington Law School, working in-house at a company, and then as a partner at the Manhattan firm. It had been a great road for him, and he really loved his work. I wanted to find out whether his experience was unique or representative, so I met with a few more patent attorneys, and they all seemed to think they were pretty lucky to be doing what they were doing. That tipped the scales for me toward patent law over corporate research or physics in medicine.
How did you choose Columbia Law School?
Columbia has a great reputation generally. I wanted to work while going to school, and there are a lot of patent firms in New York. Finally, I have a lot of friends and family in the New York area, so Columbia seemed like a great choice for me.
Walk me step by step through how you went from graduate school to principal and named partner at a growing firm.
As I mentioned, I kind of had a mentor in patent law before I was even thinking about patent law as a career. Then, when I became more interested in patent law specifically, I talked to a lot of people in the field to figure out whether it would be a good fit for me. I cold-called a few patent attorneys to ask if I could meet with them to learn more about what they liked and disliked about their jobs, and most of them were generous enough to let me meet with them. 1995 was before most firms had websites, so I got their contact information from a paper alumni directory from my college! I guess these days someone could just come to Science to Law to find people!
After getting into law school, I got a job working part-time at a firm (actually, from one of the people that I cold-called) and got good practical training there, while also gaining the traditional law school experience.
After law school, I went to work full time with the firm where I worked during school. After a year, I took a one-year position as a clerk to a Federal Circuit judge (the national appellate court that hears all patent law appeals), and then returned to the firm. The law firm was one of the largest and best-known patent firms in the country, and working there was great — the projects were interesting, the training was excellent, and the people were really nice, friendly, and helpful.
After several years at the big firm, however, an opportunity arose to start my own firm with a couple of friends, and we took the plunge. The response to our firm has been great, and we have grown faster that I could have imagined.
Did you always plan to do patent prosecution?
I suppose I had a bias towards prosecution, but I also liked litigation (and its big thrills), especially after spending a year clerking for a judge. However, over the long haul, I prefer doing prosecution on a daily basis.
As an attorney starting out, did you ever feel constrained to practicing patent law because of your science background, or could you have gone into other areas of the law?
I didn’t feel constrained to do patent law, and I could have done some other kind of law if I had wanted to. However, I was glad that I knew what I wanted to do with a law degree before I went to law school and did not have to sort that out after a year or two in school.
Let’s talk a bit about the science to law transition in general. What do you think will be the most important implications of more scientists going to law school?
I hope it will elevate the quality of practicing lawyers. Scientists are good at thinking critically, writing well, and conveying their thoughts clearly, all of which helps the legal profession.
Several obvious practice opportunities exist for lawyers with a science graduate degree (including patent prosecution, litigation, and licensing/transactional work). Are there other career opportunities in the law that scientists might not have considered?
I imagine there will be opportunities in corporate law for scientists. Remember that Wall Street in the 90s and 2000s binged on hiring scientists to add quantitative approaches to their field to develop all kinds of derivative products. I imagine that as disputes concerning these developments and products ramp up, there will be a need for people who both understand the products and how to apply the law to disputes about them.
When hiring new associates at your own firm, do you favor graduates of schools ranked high on the US News IP rankings? What do you look for?
We look for people who are smart, dependable, write well, and are highly recommended by people they have worked with. I don’t think I had heard of the US News IP rankings until I saw them discussed on this site! (Article: Beware the IP Law Rankings)
Some law firms offer night school programs wherein one works as a student associate during the day and goes to law school by night. Would you personally recommend this approach to a friend?
Yes, absolutely. Law schools generally don’t offer much practical training, so the combination of working at a firm and going to school is a good one.
What’s one single action our readers could take to determine whether law is right for them? Or later, to improve their law school application, and their chances of landing a job?
When I was considering whether to go to law school, it was very helpful to talk with attorneys about what they like and don’t like about their jobs. I imagine this site will help facilitate such conversations for people looking to explore legal careers now.
In their hiring decisions, law firms place a very large weight on a candidate’s GPA — this may seem kind of silly to someone who is coming out of a PhD program, but that is the reality — so it is important to get good grades at law school.
And I have no idea what makes a good law school application – it seems like a black box to me!
What’s your single most important takeaway for a scientist looking to go into law?
Know yourself. Figure out whether this is something you really want to do. Law school tuition is astronomical now, the job market is far less certain than it was when I was entering it, and there are many lawyers who are disillusioned with their jobs. So it is a big commitment, but it can be quite rewarding, too.
Thinking of law school? Check out our article Three Reasons Law School Will Surprise a Scientist.