Silicon Valley Pushes to Turn Scientists Into Lawyers

Amy Miller

The Recorder

September 08, 2010

There are plenty of patent attorneys in Silicon Valley, but there aren’t enough like Alexander Shvarts.

The Ropes & Gray associate possesses a combination of science and communication skills increasingly demanded from patent attorneys. He’s not only a techie with a degree in computer science from Cornell University, which helps him understand complicated patents and work with their inventors; he also likes writing and schmoozing with clients. "This fits my personality perfectly," Shvarts said.

That’s why Ropes & Gray accepted Shvarts into the firm’s technical adviser program, which first trained him to be a patent agent and then paid his tuition at Fordham University School of Law. Now the 32-year-old is based in Ropes & Gray’s Palo Alto, Calif., office, and travels to universities to persuade other future engineers and scientists to become patent lawyers in Silicon Valley, too.

Ropes & Gray may have a long list of big-name clients such as Apple Inc. and Pfizer Inc., but getting the right candidates to join the program isn’t easy. "One of the biggest challenges we have is recruiting," Shvarts said. "These people can go wherever they want."

Ropes & Gray’s technical adviser program isn’t unique. For years, firms such as Morrison & Foerster; Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner; and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati have sent people with science degrees to law school and hired them as patent attorneys after graduation.

But the competition for patent attorneys like Shvarts is so keen in Silicon Valley that Ropes & Gray has pushed hard to expand its program there, with some success. In 2009, the Palo Alto office had only one person in the program. This year, two have transferred to Palo Alto from New York City and three more have been hired.

"That’s the result of an active effort on our part," said Ropes & Gray IP partner Joseph Guiliano, who completed Fish & Neave’s program in 1993, more than 10 years before the firm merged with Ropes & Gray. "We want that practice to expand."

This year, Wilson Sonsini has 17 people who are at various stages of the firm’s technical adviser program, and they work exclusively in the firm’s life sciences and clean tech practices. That, too, is an increase from past years, attorneys said.

"Law schools don’t produce enough of the people we’re looking for," said Wilson Sonsini IP partner Vern Norviel. "We are always actively recruiting, and going around to the top-notch Ph.D. programs. We’re always trying to find these people."

‘AN ART THAT MUST BE PRACTICED’

Ropes & Gray’s program is fairly typical. Those selected work in the firm’s patent office for one to two years before starting law school, and many become registered patent agents. While in law school, they work either full-time or part-time at the firm. If all goes as planned, they’re offered an associate job — with pay at the second- or third-year level — right after graduation.

"By the time they set foot in law school, they can honestly say they have clients," Guiliano said.

Programs like Ropes & Gray’s address a central problem in the legal profession, said IP recruiter Katharine Patterson of Patterson Davis Consulting in San Francisco. To even take the patent bar, you must have a technical degree. But passing the exam doesn’t necessarily prepare someone to be a patent attorney. "This is an art that must be practiced," she said.

So why is it so hard to recruit scientists and engineers, given the attraction of earning a law degree for free, and graduating with on-the-job experience and an almost guaranteed roster of clients?

There’s a host of reasons, lawyers said. People with advanced technical degrees have a lot of options. If they don’t want to be researchers, they can become heads of cutting-edge companies, for example. A few who went through Wilson Sonsini’s technical adviser program have left the firm, but they weren’t lured away by other firms, Norviel said. They became CEOs of health care companies.

"These people are very on top of their game," he said. "They don’t have to be lawyers. They could do any number of things."

Enticing patent lawyers from other firms can be challenging. Ropes & Gray IP attorney Mark Rowland said he suspects that after recent law school graduates develop a client base, they’re reluctant to move to another firm. And the structure of patent prosecution programs differ from firm to firm.

"At some firms they are almost solo operators, and we have a different model," Rowland said. "They’re working on their own, and they prefer it that way."

NO GUARANTEES

The program may be filling a need, but at Ropes & Gray, there are no guarantees, for the firm or the participants. People aren’t obligated to join Ropes & Gray as patent attorneys after they graduate, and the firm doesn’t have to offer them a job. But the vast majority are hired, even if they don’t stay for long.

A few participants have left Ropes & Gray because they decided to work in house for a client that they developed a strong relationship with, Guiliano said. That’s not always a bad thing, though, as they can end up hiring the firm as outside counsel.

"It’s kind of a mixed bag," Guiliano said. "The opportunities get spread out a bit."

It’s a chance both firms and future prospects are willing to take. Current and former participants who were interviewed agreed that they made a smart, and economical, career move by joining the Ropes & Gray program.

For Shvarts, patent law combines his love of writing and communicating with his obsession for high-tech gadgetry. He can stay up-to-date on the latest technologies while working for some cutting-edge companies. "I’ve done just about everything you can do in IP law," Shvarts said.

None said it was easy, though. Juggling law school and working at the firm requires careful time management, not to mention finding time to study for the bar.

"There are growing pains along the way," said Matthew Bertenthal, 26, a patent agent in the program at Ropes & Gray’s Silicon Valley office. "But at the same time, I feel like this is the best thing I could have done."

Bertenthal graduated from Cornell University with a computer and electrical engineering degree, but he liked writing and interacting with people too much to spend his days in a computer lab. Now he’s attending Fordham University School of Law, but has spent the last semester at Santa Clara University School of Law. "I wouldn’t be going to law school any other way," he said.

Like many of the people chosen for the program, Yang Xu, 31, has more than one advanced science degree. She’s earned both a master’s and a Ph.D in organic chemistry.

She tried working as a chemist for a biotech company for a couple of years, but soon realized that it wasn’t want she wanted to do for the next 10 years. "To me, it felt very repetitive," she said.

Xu hasn’t lost her love of science. But now that she’s a technical adviser for Ropes & Gray and is preparing to apply to law school, she gets to see the broader landscape of the IP world, something she’d wanted for a long time.

"I’m starting all over again," Xu says. "But it’s really exciting."

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