Few students enter engineering degree programs with plans to practice law. But for those technical-minded people who choose to become attorneys, the rewards are great. A law degree is required to practice law, of course, but it can also open some doors to other careers for people with an engineering education. For example, a patent attorney needs a scientific background as well as a license to practice law.
With a growing need for attorneys who have technical knowledge, one school has broken ground on a special program. Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has started an honors program in engineering and law. The only one of its kind in the United States, this program offers high school seniors a three-year undergraduate degree in engineering and conditional acceptance to law school. Graduates of the program will be well trained to pursue a variety of careers requiring this combination of expertise.
MARK L. MURDOCK: ENGINEER AT LAW
Practicing law was not something Mark L. Murdock considered when he first entered engineering school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His plan was to complete his mechanical engineering degree, which he did, and to work as an engineer.
"As I approached graduation, I began to think about what I wanted to do," he says. "I had friends who were going to pursue graduate degrees, but I didn't know anybody going to law school. The father of a friend of mine was a judge, and he told me that with a law degree, you can be a lawyer, businessman or engineeryou enrich your options."
Murdock enrolled in law school at the University of Texas at Austin and found that the program suited him well. "In law school, you're taught to think," he notes. "It complements the way you're taught to analyze problems in engineering school. Another important aspect of law school is that it enhances your communication skills."
In his current position with Thompson & Knight, P.C., in Austin, Murdock finds his engineering background a bonus. He is responsible for introducing the law firm to the expanding technical community in Austin. With the influx of venture capitalists from the Silicon Valley, Texas companies are in need of attorneys who can represent their interests.
Prior to working with the firm, Murdock served as general counsel for IBM in Austin. He was responsible for all legal affairs within the company. "It involved an enormous range of subject areas: antitrust, intellectual property, procurement, taxes, real estate, employment, OSHA and legislative affairs. As general counsel, you have to stay abreast of all kinds of law."
Having an engineering degree, Murdock has especially enjoyed the fact that he can talk easily with other engineers involved in law cases. "With a degree in engineering, you're not intimidated by difficult fact situations," he explains. "[At times], when all my engineering math was still fresh, I could catch mistakes engineers made. It was kind of fun."
As for his advice to engineers considering law as a career, Murdock offers nothing but encouragement. "Engineers with law degrees have options to work in the high-tech industry and to be close to the excitement," he notes. "If you're considering practicing law, get as much information as possible about the career choices available. Don't be bashfulcall people and ask to sit down and talk to them about their work." Law school is a competitive venue, however, so Murdock cautions students to take their undergraduate studies seriously. "Don't neglect for an instant the pursuit of the highest grades you can make. Never lose sight of excellence in the classroom."
BRENDA OZAKI HOLMES: CALLED TO LAW
With her interest in and aptitude for math and science Brenda Ozaki Holmes thought engineering was a natural first career for herself. She earned a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Florida and then completed a master's degree in computer engineering at Florida Atlanta University. Holmes went on to work for six and a half years as an engineer with IBM.
Brenda Ozaki Holmes
"I enjoyed my job as an engineer," she recalls. "I worked in the areas of memory controller chip design, system development and other related projects. Five to six years out of school, many engineers in large companies consider becoming a manager, but I didn't have that desire because I enjoyed my design work so much. Still, I recognized that I had some skills that weren't being used as an engineer."
Holmes had worked on patent applications during her career at IBM, and she had attended a seminar about patents. The patent field interested her so much, in fact, that she began to think about law as a career. Soon Ozaki enrolled in law school at the University of Florida.
"I found that law school was much like engineering school, in that both fields are detail-oriented and require analysis. The skills developed in engineering school can be transferred to law," she says.
For several years after graduating from law school, Holmes practiced general commercial litigation. At last, she got into patent law.
"Patent law combines both engineering and law," she explains. "It lets you see new 'gee whiz' products and work with emerging technologies, which is fun. It's also nice to see a product on the market and know that you helped obtain patent protection for it."
In her job as a patent attorney with Jones & Askew, LLP, in Atlanta, Holmes prosecutes patent applications and conducts litigation. She also does some trademark and copyright work. At times, her job involves client counseling, which often includes rendering an opinion about the validity or the infringement of a patent.
"We also help our clients monitor and enforce their trademarks," she adds. "We watch for people who are misusing their trademarks, especially on the Internet."
Holmes advises that engineers who want to pursue law as a career should give the matter serious consideration. Like Murdock, she recommends talking with people in the field as a good way to understand what the profession is like. "You need to find out if you're suited to it," she says.
BRIAN C. MCCORMACK: TECHNO-LITERATE LITIGATION
"Initially, I was really into technology," says Brian C. McCormack, an attorney in the Dallas office of international legal giant Baker & McKenzie. "As an undergraduate, I never considered becoming a lawyer. I had thought about it in high school, but I assumed you'd have to have a political science background."
McCormack earned bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from Iowa State University and the University of Texas at Arlington, respectively. The first stop on his career path was a position at Texas Instruments (TI), where he worked as an engineer for six years. Around that time, TI inaugurated a program for engineers who wanted to attend law school, providing assistance to those who scored well enough on the Law School Admission Test to attend Southern Methodist University. McCormack made the grade.
While he attended law school at SMU, McCormack also worked as a patent agent for TI, handling cases before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He held that job for four years. "You can work as an agent without being an attorney," he explains. "If you have the proper background, you can sit for the agent exam. Working as a patent agent is a good way to see if patent law is where you want to go."
Now as a patent attorney, McCormack deals with high technology constantly. He says that his engineering background enables him to share a common language with his clients; they can communicate easily because of his technical knowledge.
"Seventy percent of my work is presently in litigation and litigation support," he says. "I prepare memos to the litigation team and briefs to the court. I also work with clients to understand their side of the case. We go through what is called a 'discovery process'a fact exchange between parties. I'm involved in both the technical and legal aspects of the discovery process, and I'm responsible for determining the meaning of a litigated patent."
McCormack emphasizes the importance of good writing skills for attorneys. He advises that if an engineer wants to focus only on math and science with little time spent on writing, law is probably not the best field to choose. And he, too, recommends talking with patent attorneys to gain an understanding about what they do. Suggesting that engineers work for a while before going to law school, McCormack adds, "It doesn't hurt to have some real-life experience."
McCormack says that he has found his niche in patent law. "This field lets me use my abilities," he says. "I've always felt I had abilities in technology and language, and what I do challenges my skills in both these areas."
McCormack invites readers to contact him at email@example.com.
JONATHAN O. SCOTT: A PATENTED CAREER
Jonathan O. Scott started working for a small electronics company after he graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, Davis. Avidly interested in electronics, he thought engineering would be his ideal career. However, after a year, he was laid off from the company and realized his career plans weren't very well-formulated.
Jonathan O. Scott
After a number of years working at other jobs and taking a variety of night classes, Scott discovered that law might be a good field for him. He enrolled in an international law class and enjoyed it thoroughly. "I didn't go to law school thinking about patent law," he recalls. "I have a background in environmental issues and lived in Costa Rica for a while, volunteering at a land use center and a national park, so I thought about going into environmental law."
He did research and attended career forums only to discover that jobs in environmental law were few and far between and involved mostly litigation, which he did not want to do.
"Then, a friend who also was an engineer said, 'With your engineering background, you should go into patent law,'" he recalls. "After my first year in law school, I landed a summer job with a patent law firm and found it to be a lot of fun and quite interesting."
With a law degree from the University of San Francisco, Scott was ready to take on his new role as a patent attorney. He was hired by Beyer & Weaver, LLP, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based patent law firm that works with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and counsels clients through the application process. In addition to passing the regular state bar exam, he had to pass the agent exam that is administered by the Patent Office.
"Our firm doesn't do litigation," he says. "We talk to small and large companies that have an idea or invention they think is worthwhile and in which they want to invest. I talk to clients about protecting their interests, and I interview their engineers and write the patent application. Then I shepherd the applications through the Patent Office. It's my job to define inventions well enough for them to be patented. It's a challenging position because the Patent Office generally rejects applications, and then we have to present the advantages and novelty of our client's invention and argue those issues with the Patent Office."
Scott recommends that before attending law school, engineers should get a couple of years of experience. He notes that people with professional experience are more well-rounded and better able to understand their clients' needs than people who skipped that real-world training.