Do you need a science degree to be a good IP lawyer?

Many good intellectual property lawyers have science degrees.  Some have several – IP Draughts can think of one well-known IP barrister who, in addition to his legal qualifications, has a PhD in applied mathematics and an MSc in economics, and is currently studying for a chemistry degree in his spare time.

For some areas of patent litigation, a scientific training can be useful.  Penny Gilbert (DPhil in molecular biology from Oxford), the doyenne of biotech patent litigation and co-founder of Powell Gilbert, springs to mind.  Some IP litigators consider a science degree far better than a law degree as preparation for legal practice.  However, opinions vary.  Some highly-respected IP litigators have (only) law degrees, eg Sally Field of Bristows.

In most cases, UK IP lawyers either have an undergraduate science degree or an undergraduate law degree, and not both (although, increasingly, non-law graduates who pursue the legal practice courses are taking on an extra subject or two to build them up into a law degree).  Typically, therefore, science graduates take a condensed course of legal training over one year (plus one year’s LPC) rather than three (plus one), en route to qualifying as lawyers.  Inevitably, this results in a less in-depth approach to studying law than law students receive.

This can cause some science graduates to struggle when they take the Oxford postgraduate diploma in IP, as many junior IP lawyers now do.  This has been particularly noticed in the last couple of years, as the academic tutors on that course are gradually making it more academically rigorous and more aligned with other Oxford law courses, eg through the introduction of compulsory essays.

Once the budding IP litigator has passed the Oxford course, there is a point of view that their formal legal training is complete.  They have been exposed to an intensive course of study on IP legislation and on litigation practice, and this will be supplemented by learning on the job, under the supervision of more experienced litigators.  They have also had a condensed, general exposure to law via the CPE and LPC. If the IP litigator is also a science graduate who can understand and prepare technical evidence, they may bring more to the table than a law graduate.  Or at least so the argument goes.

The legal skills required of transactional IP lawyers overlap with those required of IP litigators, but they are not the same.  Clearly, both areas of practice require a knowledge of IP law, and both probably require an understanding of competition laws (or access to someone with that understanding).  Transactional IP lawyers also need to understand contract law and (at least at some level) other areas of commercial law, eg insolvency, tax, general property law, tort, company law, trusts, and so on.  This is why our proposed postgraduate diploma in IP transactions will cover much wider areas of law than the Oxford course currently does.

For transactional IP work, IP Draughts thinks a law degree is probably more valuable than it is for IP litigators.  Spending 3 years studying law to degree level gives a greater breadth of legal knowledge, and more extensive training in analysing legal principles and case law, than the CPE or LPC can provide.  This is not to denigrate science degrees.  A science or engineering degree provides other, useful skills for transactional IP work, but there is probably not the same natural bias towards science graduates as there may be in highly-technical areas of patent litigation. The key thing is to fill in any gaps in knowledge or approach early in one’s career.  In our office we have three law graduates, one law and computing graduate, one physics graduate (to PhD level), one engineering graduate, and one non-law graduate who has an MBA.  Having a mix of skills in the team helps us all to do our jobs better.

Finally, we should not overlook mathematicians.  Some of the most prominent UK lawyers of the twentieth century studied maths at university, including Lord Denning and, from Scotland, former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

1 Comment

Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal practice

One response to “Do you need a science degree to be a good IP lawyer?

  1. Reblogged this on IP Draughts and commented:

    This golden oldie comes in at number 20 in the hit parade of most popular articles on this blog. It was written before our IP transactions course started, and the course has recently had its fifth annual outing. Otherwise, the article stands up today. Penny Gilbert and Sally Field are still leading examples of the scientist versus non-scientist who becomes an eminent practitioner in IP litigation. Both are ranked in the gold category in this year’s IAM Patent 1000 rankings.

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