Careers in Law and Science

Two forensics scientists working in laboratory discussing a failed part.

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Legal scientists or those with a background in both science and the law is a growing career field. Increased interest in biotechnology, the pervasiveness of biotechnology products in daily life, and escalating numbers of patent filings and intellectual property (IP) infringement cases, has caused a high demand for lawyers with scientific and technology backgrounds. For anyone considering alternative careers, the marriage of these two disciplines in a course of study can almost guarantee employment after graduation.

In a recent interview with the University of Guelph Alumni magazine Portico, patent lawyer Maria Granovsky described her first employer in the legal field. The law firm Sterne Kessler, Goldstein & Fox (Washington, DC), was "keen to have associates who could argue the fine points of science." So keen, in fact, that they paid her tuition to attend law school.

The Marriage of Law and Science Degrees

Job opportunities, for individuals with both legal and scientific backgrounds, include work as a technical specialist with a science degree or as an associate with both science and legal degrees.

Individuals with this dual field knowledge can find work as environmental lawyers, in the forensic sciences, working with occupational health and safety, in urban planning, and even as public relations specialists. However, most often you will find yourself dealing with IP cases such as patent, copyright, and trademark disputes.

The cases might be opened on behalf of clients already holding rights to a product or copyright that has reason to claim those rights have been infringed by another party. Other times, clients might require protection from a lawsuit filed by another party whose patent claim, they feel, is invalid.

Many complications in establishing IP ownership can arise because of the sheer volume of patent claims being made. Also, there is some difficulty on the part of both researchers and regulating bodies, in keeping track of the specifics of—and ensuring the uniqueness of—each invention.

An invention that has been previously described in the literature, or something that has been on the market for years, cannot be patented. Yet, the filing party, or patent office, might not be aware of the pre-existing product or literature.

That's when the lawyers are called in to examine the facts, decipher the legal jargon, establish precedence, and defend their cases in court. According to Granovsky, law firms are having a hard time finding individuals with a solid understanding of the technology behind many of these high-tech cases.

Committee on Science, Technology, and Law

The National Academy of Sciences has recognized the convergence of these two very different disciplines by forming a Committee on Science, Technology, and Law. The committee is tasked with exploring, discussing, and establishing policies on five major areas:

  1. Science in Litigation
  2. Federal Information Policy/ Access to Research Data
  3. Science and National Security
  4. Intellectual Property Rights
  5. Protection of Human Participants in Environmental Research

According to the Academy, much of the problem with legal cases surrounding technology issues is the key difference between how these two traditional disciplines have evolved.

Differences in the Disciplines

The practice of Law is based on facts and finite findings in an effort to resolve issues that might not have definitive answers according to science. Science, traditionally, is a discipline of sharing information, and an "open-ended search for expanded understanding, whose 'truths' are always subject to revision."

Expanding commercialism and the need to recover biotechnology investments and research funding through profits has led to the invasion of the scientific domain by legal issues—especially surrounding IP access to research data and conflicts of interest.

Growing Need for Combined Science and Legal Knowledge

Although science may have done without lawyers in the past, there are now many important bioethics issues that must be dealt with in areas of environmental science, biotechnology, genetics, and medical research.

Success in either discipline depends on an ability to go "fact-finding"; gathering information and processing it in an orderly fashion. Both require a high amount of logic and attention to detail. Therefore, strengths in one area are easily applied to the other.

A combined Science and Law degree provide essential tools for many other career options such as consulting, corporate management and other areas of technology. It’s not all glamor and courtroom heroics, though.

Like any job, much of the routine involves attending meetings, seeing clients, and research and reading. These professionals will do plenty of writing letters, reviewing contracts, and completing other documents. However, the job description is ideal for those interested in studying science but looking for a career outside the laboratory.