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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 28, 2016

I’m a 3L with a BSEE and pre-law IP experience. I have a patent job lined up with a leading IP boutique, but I really want to be a commercial lawyer. How can I transition into such a role and what is the best timing?

Julie Q. Brush

As a graduating law student with an electrical engineering degree and several years of pre-law IP/patent experience, your greatest marketability at this point in your legal career is as a patent lawyer. So it is natural that you have selected this path as your first job out of law school. Given the high demand for lawyers with the EE degree, your background will pay dividends throughout your career and you’ll be well positioned if you wish to pursue a career in patent law.

But you don’t.

So when…and how is the best way to pivot from your life in IP to a career in commercial law?

The When:

If you have determined that pursuing a career as a commercial lawyer is what you’d like to do – and you’ve committed to it, the best time to transition to this practice area is as soon as possible. Because the more senior you become, the harder it will be to retool your practice. Every employer on the planet will want to leverage your EE expertise for the benefit of its patent practice. So the sooner you switch, the better. You’ll have four years before it becomes materially more difficult, but the ideal retool window is between your first and third year as a law firm associate. With this said, I do not recommend that you renege on your IP boutique offer – as you have committed to this firm and should follow through on your promise. But in this situation, it is professionally acceptable to begin your search for a commercial position after your first year.

The How:

Your deep background in IP need not preclude you from securing a job as a commercial lawyer. Even after your first year practicing patent law. Here are a few ways to make your transition happen.

  1. Diversify your practice at your current firm. While you have been hired as a first year patent associate, once you get acclimated and build credibility inquire about working on other types of transaction matters like technology, trademark and other types of transactions. If you can diversify your practice…even a little bit, you’ll increase your options when you’re ready to move to a commercial oriented role. If your firm has a separate transactions group, it may possible to switch groups and achieve your goal.
  1. Join another law firm as a commercial associate. After Year 1 or Year 2, seek junior commercial associate positions at other law firms. You’ll be junior enough to be considered a viable retool, which will preserve your options for this kind of move. Note: it is likely that the law firms will require you to take a seniority hit for purposes of partnership and/or compensation. So be prepared for one or both of these scenarios. If you’re set on the move, the haircut will be worth it.
  1. Go In House. Most companies don’t hire first or second year lawyers. But this is starting to change and an increasing number of corporate employers are scooping up young talent at earlier stages of their careers. Today’s hiring managers will often retool law firm associates for their junior commercial roles due to lack of inventory. So joining a company as a junior Counsel or Corporate/Commercial Counsel will not only flip the switch on your practice area, it will move you out of the law firm and into an in house environment. A role many law firm associates covet.
  1. Make Your Case. In your interviews, employers will want to know why you want to retool your practice – and will assess whether your have the skills to successfully do so. So make your case and be prepared to articulate how your IP skills translate to a commercial practice: Do you need to think strategically? Be a good drafter? Have a great work ethic? Pay attention to detail? By having a compelling narrative, you’ll greatly increase your odds of securing the role you desire when the opportunity arises.

As you head into this new chapter of your legal career, make the most of your first year as an IP associate and focus on gaining the best experience possible. The knowledge will serve you well as your career evolves regardless of your practice specialty. It is during these early years that you will build the foundation for your legal practice and develop your work habits. So at this point don’t be overly concerned or anxious with your next move to the commercial world. As long as you understand the “when” and the “how” to achieve your practice transition, you’ll have what you need make it happen when you are ready.

Like this

David stevens, Founder, Stevens Law Group

I did this, but in my 5th year, and your advice is sound. Even in your 2-3 year window, it is difficult for a firm to train a person in such a big change. That said, once you transfer, your patent experience will prove valuable when working with high tech clients. Too many corporate attorneys know nil about IP, and IP is a major part of most acquisitions in tech companies. When you get to the firm, makes sure to make lots of friends in the corporate department, associates, partners, and paralegals (they will be the most help in honing your trade skills). The patent group might have trouble trading you off, but friendships in the corporate group will help you run interference if you run into political problems. Again, great advice to keep in mind.

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