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Tech-Savvy Scarcity

By Kari Santos | Aug. 2, 2014

Law Office Management

Aug. 2, 2014

Tech-Savvy Scarcity

Law schools are producing too few JDs with the science backgrounds firms demand.

When Steven J. Nataupsky is hiring attorneys for Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear, one of California's largest intellectual property firms, he almost always looks for the same qualifications: a top-tier law degree plus a background in engineering or science. Nataupsky hoped to hire about 30 new attorneys this year, as he usually does.

He's found only 20 so far.

"The word on the street-and I think it's been true in most sectors of the law-is that there are just not as many jobs as there used to be," says Nataupsky, managing partner of the Irvine-based firm. "That's not the case for students with engineering and hard science degrees if they want to go into IP or patent law."

Recruiters back up Nataupsky's impression that IP is one of the rare areas of law where demand for attorneys outstrips supply. Some blame competition from major tech companies, which grab the brightest engineers and computer scientists right out of undergraduate schools. Others finger law schools for failing to admit students with science backgrounds for fear that their lower GPAs will weigh down the schools' rankings. Still others believe that too few students start college with an interest in math and science.

Whatever the causes, the outcome is clear: "The [lawyer] jobs that go unfilled are in IP," says Delia Swan, president of Swan Legal Search, which does business across California.

Even as firms increasingly seek associates with a couple years of experience, brand new law school grads who also have degrees in electrical engineering or computer science still draw interest, says SunMi Kim, Robert Half Legal's metro market manager for Southern California.

"Everyone wants the same thing: It's EE, EE, EE [electrical engineering]-and sometimes ME [mechanical engineering]," says Gloria Sandrino, a San Diegobased legal recruiter with Lucas Group.

Computer science degrees also are in high demand-as are mechanical and aeronautic engineers, chemists, and biochemists-"pretty much every hard science category," says Nataupsky.

Often the added value of a science background is the ability to understand a client's invention. Not all IP firms report problems finding attorneys with the background they need, and some are more flexible than others. A science degree is "not an absolute prerequisite, but it helps," says Michael Headley, a firmwide hiring principal with Fish & Richardson in Redwood City.

Many law schools say they recognize the importance of IP in the evolving legal market and have added IP faculty, courses, and clinics. At UC Hastings law school, for example, the Startup Legal Garage (see "Legal Careers," page 6) pairs Silicon Valley start-ups with students who provide legal advice under the guidance of a pro bono attorney. "IP and other areas of the law related to tech have rebounded more quickly," says Robin Feldman, director of Hastings's Institute for Innovation Law, "and we want our students to be ready and trained for that."

But many people say that an IP attorney's undergraduate background can be as valuable as anything he or she learns in law school-and that schools should take note of that in admissions.

"A law school can't take someone who is a history major and turn them into a patent lawyer," says Valerie Fontaine, a recruiter with Los Angelesbased search firm Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith.

So desperate are firms for attorneys who know science that they increasingly recruit students from some of the country's top science and tech graduate schools to work in a nonlawyer capacity on patents, says Sandrino. If the arrangement works out, firms are often willing to pay for law school for these students, assuming they agree to work for the firm after earning their JD. Cooley's firmwide head of IP, Jim Brogan, says Cooley constantly recruits technology specialists-"tech specs"-this way.

As Joe Teja, a Cooley attorney working in Boston, puts it: "On balance, when we look at the benefit to the practice, the short-term investment is not insignificant. But holistically speaking, it's a drop in the bucket-especially when you look at the people who become successful at this for their careers."


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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