By: Sonal Gahlawat
Have you ever watched “Suits,” an American legal drama, and been fascinated with the charming, charismatic lawyers of a prominent New York law firm, legal jargon, and splendid corner office views? Then, you are in for a treat. On March 24, 2020, Rutgers iJOBS hosted a career panel to discuss an alternative fascinating career choice for graduate students: patent law and intellectual property (IP), a growing practice area that protects the human mind’s brilliant bewildering, and life-saving creations.
The career event included three panelists with their own experiences in the field to share. Panelist Dr. Victor P. Ghiduis an Associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP with a doctoral degree in Organic Chemistry from Case Western Reserve University. Rutgers alumnus Dr. Matthew Stuber, holds a doctoral degree in Chemistry from Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and currently works as a Patent Technical Specialist at Mayer Brown LLP. Fellow Rutgers alumnus from Rutgers Cellular & Molecular Pharmacology, Dr. Przemyslaw P. McEwan, currently works as a Patent Agent at Troutman Pepper and is a first-year law student at Delaware Law School. It is impressive that all the three panelists have advanced STEM degrees and are thriving in the field of patent law. At this point, I can’t fail but imagine a “Suits” counterpart with a twist of Ph.D. scientists, dressed in fancy suits, prancing through busy streets while celebrating the filing of a new patent application.
So, are you curious about their career paths and how they end up working as “men in suits” after graduate school? Dr. Ghidu came to the States as an international student, completed a Ph.D., and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at both Vanderbilt University and Temple University. There, he focused on medicinal chemistry. While doing bench work in the lab, he started thinking about exploring IP as an alternative career. Without any hesitation, Dr. Ghidu applied to the Temple University’s School of Law and did an exceptional job conducting research while studying law. With a law degree in hand, Dr. Ghidu practiced patent law at a boutique IP firm in the greater Philadelphia area to expand his skillset and gain experience. A few years down the line, Dr. Ghidu connected with a friend who helped him secure a job at Morgan Lewis. Unlike Dr. Ghidu’s late entry into the field of IP, Dr. Stuber’s began exploring patent law while attending graduate school. After attending an IP seminar hosted by the Rutgers iJOBS, Dr. Stuber interned at Rutgers’ Technology Transfer Office, where he learned more about the basics of patent law and IP and gained valuable experience reviewing technical disclosures and preparing technology assessments for inventions in the biomedical and physical sciences as well as medical devices. Following graduation and having one foot already in the door, Dr. Stuber applied for jobs at several law firms and tech transfer offices around the US. After doing multiple informational interviews on LinkedIn (the best place to network right from your couch), he eventually found a job via his LinkedIn network. Our last panelist, Dr. McEwan, had an intriguing journey, full of twists and turns. While at Rutgers, Dr. McEwan attended iJOBS events and became acquainted with different career options in pharma. Like so many other Ph.D. candidates, Dr. McEwan believed he was destined to work in the pharmaceutical industry. Listening to his heart and interests, he worked at a start-up company as part of the NSF I-Corps award. Accepting the cons of start-up culture (i.e., poor stability, uncertainty on a daily basis, etc.), Dr. McEwan decided to turn the steering wheels of his career towards academia again. Dr. McEwan arrived at the University of Pennsylvania as a postdoctoral fellow, where he attended an eye-opening talk on the “patentability of antibiotics” by a prestigious speaker. This talk “sparked a flame” and excited Dr. McEwan, making him realize that he wanted to pursue patent law and the rest was the history. He overly enjoyed interviewing with multiple law firms: staying in grand hotels with all expenses covered. Who can blame him for that? Dr. McEwan is also working towards his law degree to advance his career. All three panelists had a very similar interviewing experience. One of the common themes that the panelists constantly highlighted was the ability to effectively communicate your scientific research both orally and in writing to a wide range of audiences, a skill that graduate students exercise daily. This is especially important with no or minimal experience related to patent law. Additionally, commitment was strongly emphasized as this field is highly competitive. One should be open-minded to learning about new technology daily, which could be daunting. You can be reading about solar panel technology one day and learning about novel drug formulations for cosmetic compositions the next. Every case presents its particular issues, resulting in an intellectually stimulating and challenging working environment.
Before heading into our panelists’ day-to-day work life, it’s important to understand the difference between a technical specialist, patent agent, and an associate. Technical specialists and patent agents share similar responsibilities and functions. These positions predominantly focus on interviewing clients to decide whether something can be patented. Additionally, these roles include preparing, filing, and prosecuting patent applications while fighting for their client’s inventions. The main difference between the two positions is that a patent agent has passed the patent bar exam, earned their registration number, and is duly recognized by the U.S. government as someone who practices patent law. A technical specialist cannot alone sign off legal documents or communicate directly with the U.S. patent office. An associate is a “one-stop-shop,” i.e., someone who finished law school and can give you any legal advice on non-disclosure agreements (NDA), trademarks, patent licensing, patent infringement, etc. Both Dr. Stuber and Dr. McEwan investigate whether their clients’ invention can be patented or not. If necessary, they reach out to the IP counsel. Moreover, they will draft and file a patent application, perform preemption analysis, communicate with clients to design their business plans, and resolve inventorship disputes. Both Drs. Stuber and McEwan noted they maintain a healthy work-life balance. Dr. Ghidu works with several firms’ partners and clients while managing junior associates, patent agents, and technical specialists. Working for a client (small-to-medium-sized) for a long time means Dr. Ghidu is deeply invested in the client’s technology and offers counseling on possible collaborations, selling/acquiring assets, and contracts. He also works with in-house counsel of big, multinational companies. Seeing vast differences in terms of workload and responsibilities, all these different roles are paid based on their completed billable hours, which are defined by their firms. They adhere to the following trend: associate (2000 hr/yr), patent agent (1800 hr/yr), and technical specialist (1600 hr/yr). Even if you don’t reach your billable hours, you will still be paid your salary. However, that hefty bonus is only tied to your billable hours. So, not meeting your billable hours might mean kissing that bonus goodbye. There is still a silver lining here: billing hours are not fixed and can be moved depending on your firm.
Let’s get some tips from our three panelists to get your foot in the door or maybe “name on the wall” in the world of patent and IP. In big, bold letters, NETWORK, NETWORK, and NETWORK. Connect on LinkedIn. Maintain your connections. Get career insight by doing informational interviews. Find internships and/or postdoctoral positions at tech transfer offices if your university has one. Work at small boutique firms to learn more with less pressure, and don’t be afraid to talk about your science or interests. You might not be an expert in everything but be ready to throw in some legal terms only if you can back it up. But wait, does Dr. XYZ need a law degree to become a patent agent? The answer is No. While a law degree might be encouraged by an employer, it is not a requirement. Some law firms will even pay for your law school, which could take anywhere between 3-4 years, depending on the number of credits of coursework you can take in a semester. Currently, it is one of the best times to get a job at a law firm: truckloads of work but not enough people. Although earning a Doctor of Jurisprudence is a fundamental step in pursuing a legal career, a legal argument can be made that strengthens our claim: it is absolutely possible to be a valued member of a patent team without having "J.D." stenciled after your name.
The iJOBS career panel on technical specialists and patent law was visionary. This discussion enables all the graduate students to think about an alternative career never imagined. As a STEM graduate student with a father who was at the top of his class during law school, I enjoyed learning new legal terms. This career panel made me feel inspired, invigorated, and excited about the future for STEM Ph.D holders to pursue and practice law. Whether you are an associate or a patent agent, you can and will make a difference. With that, I rest my case!
This article was edited by Junior Editor Shawn Rumrill and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.