Chemistry and the Law

Lawyers act as both advocates and advisors representing the interests of their clients and advising them about their legal rights and obligations. Whether acting as an advocate or an advisor, all attorneys research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances and needs of their clients. There are also many opportunities for professionals to work in this field without attending law school or becoming a lawyer.
The growing field of intellectual property—helping to protect clients’ claims to copyrights, innovations, product designs, and computer programs—offers a variety of opportunities for attorneys who specialize in science and chemistry.

Opportunities for Chemists in the Legal Profession

Environmental Law: Lawyers specializing in chemical and environmental law may represent manufacturers or special interest groups, waste disposal companies, or construction firms in their dealings with the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state agencies. These lawyers help clients prepare and file for licenses and applications for approval before certain activities are permitted to occur. They can also ensure that their clients are compliant with all laws and regulations.

In-house Counsel: Some people find that working for an industry is the best fit for them. Many lawyers with a chemistry background work for chemical and life sciences companies. In-house lawyers tend to have a more regular schedule and become more intimately familiar with one area of technology. They also see how that technology fits into the company’s business plan. At some companies, a scientist can transition from a bench researcher position to a patent liaison position and eventually to a patent agent position.

As “house counsel,” they usually advise the company concerning legal issues related to its business activities that include patents, government regulations, contracts with other companies, and property interests. Some lawyers also work for universities, national laboratories, and government agencies.

Patent Law: The majority of lawyers with an interest in science work in the field of intellectual property—helping to protect clients’ claims to copyrights, innovations, product designs, and computer programs—offers a variety of opportunities for attorneys with a specialization in science and chemistry.

The field of intellectual property and patent law employs patent attorneys who have the specialized qualifications necessary for representing clients in obtaining patents and for acting in all matters and procedures relating to patent law and practice, such as filing an opposition. A patent attorney helps the client obtain patents and avoid patent infringement. During the development of a new drug, for example, the patent attorney studies the patents owned by other parties and advises the client regarding the scope and validity of these patents so that the client’s drug development work avoids infringing on valid patents of all other parties. Patent attorneys must have the technical background to understand the inventions they are supporting. Intellectual property law firms also employ many professionals who conduct background research, investigate new technical areas, and even help draft patents, without being attorneys themselves.

Technical Skills

  • Research skills are essential for understanding both the science involved and all relevant legal information.
  • Analytical skills are crucial, as is the ability to analyze large amounts of information, determine which factors are relevant, and propose multiple solutions.
  • Legal professionals must be able to remain objective when explaining the facts and the relative benefits and risks of each course of action in order to allow others to make the decision as to the appropriate course of action.
  • Communication skills are vital. They must be able to write quickly and accurately, while being precise and specific. They must be able to clearly present relevant data both in writing and orally.
  • Interpersonal skills are required to build trust and respect of clients.

Career Path

The law field has numerous opportunities, and people with specific expertise have opportunities to move up. While some legal professionals go to law school directly after their undergraduate education, about one third of them choose to work in the legal field for a period of time before going back to law school. Relocation can be difficult, since regulations and licensing requirements vary by state or territory.

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