Chemists in Patent Law

August 10, 2009

Getting bored with routine lab work? Like to write? Ready for something new? How about combining chemistry and law?

While there are no figures on how many chemists have careers in the legal world, about 1150 are members of the ACS Division of Chemistry and The Law (CHAL). Of these, the most common specialty is patent law or intellectual property (IP).

Now retired, Howard Peters had his own “boutique law firm” specializing in patent law. He explained his specialty this way: “I was like a British solicitor; I listened to ordinary people who had inventions. They told me about their extraordinary invention; I filed the application with the US Patent Office and then battled with the examiners to get the patent issued.”

Peters had a PhD and was working full-time in industry before going to law school. As part of his job, he spent four months in the Dow Patent Department. “I became fascinated – and I liked to write.” Later after settling in California, he started law school but didn’t quit his job in explosives at SRI International. Eventually, he worked for a law firm and then started his own.

Becoming a patent agent is another option for those considering Patent Law, and you don’t need a PhD or even a law degree (JD). A patent agent at Wyeth Research, Barbara Lences is not an attorney. She explains that a patent agent is authorized by the US Patent and Trademark Office to file and prosecute patent applications. “Becoming a patent agent requires an undergraduate or graduate degree in the sciences and a passing grade on the patent bar exam. Patent agents and patent attorneys differ in that patent attorneys have completed a law degree in addition to a science degree and are qualified to ajudicate a patent or patent application in a court of law, in addition to filing and prosecuting a patent application.”

With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Lences did organic synthesis in agrichemical and pharmaceutical research groups, eventually reaching the point where it was no longer challenging. “I had gone about as far as I could go in chemistry without a graduate degree. Grad school was not an option because I had young children at that time.” Through her company’s patent liaison office, she switched careers from chemistry to patent law. During this transition she took an ACS Short Course on patent law and a bar review course, eventually taking the patent bar exam and becoming a registered patent agent.

Lences finds that often young scientists don’t know about alternative career options such as hers. “When you are a science major, except for medical school, careers outside of academic or industrial chemistry are not emphasized.” When students hear of her career, they are surprised: “Oh – you can do that! You don’t have to choose between teaching and research?” She points out that in addition to careers in patent law, regulatory affairs, and chemical health and safety, a chemist can become a technical expert at a law firm and work with attorneys in patent drafting and in litigation.


Anne Kuhlmann Taylor, PhD (ACS ’67), is a consultant and technical writer based in Baton Rouge, LA. Previously, she was an analytical chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. Working with CTD Quality Consulting, she writes, edits, and critiques documents for the pharmaceutical industries. She is Councilor from the Baton Rouge Section of ACS and serves on the Committee on Community Activities.

Evaluate your Values

August 3, 2009

Over the past several months, many friends and collegues have sent me their resumes, asking for a critical review. The majority had been laid off, and had not updated their resumes in a very long time. In recent weeks, the tide has shifted. I’m now getting more job descriptions with “here’s where I’m applying”, and have noticed an interesting trend in the sought-after positions. A significant number of them are government jobs, or a return to the classroom as a teacher.

This is a significant shift from what I usually see, which is almost all industrial positions. I wonder if this is related to the “current economic conditions” (which we’re all tired of hearing about, I’m sure). As people are forced to downsize, re-evaluate, and re-focus their lives, some are realizing that what they have been doing has not been what they really wanted to do. Many are realizing that they’d rather have a job with more security and less money than a high-paying job that might go away at any time. Government has traditionally been a very stable place to work, and education can also be fairly stable – there will always be a new generation of scientists needing to be taught. As the world in general becomes less secure, many people are looking for more stability in their professional lives.

Security is one of the six values ACS describes when talking to scientists about their careers in the “Planning Your Job Search” workshop. The others are Advancement, Altruism, Autonomy, Balance, and Challenge. Balance is the probably the easiest value to understand as it relates to work. Do you need flexible hours to care for children or elderly parents? Do you need to be able to take time off in the middle of the day and then work late in the evening, or to keep travel to a minimum? Are the family-friendly policies just written on the books, or can employees take advantage of them without being penalized in subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) ways?

The other values are just as important, though perhaps less obvious.

Do you derive great satisfaction from solving difficult, challenging problems but don’t get to do that in your current job? Result: You will be bored.

Do you enjoy working on your own – taking ownership of a project or team, and making decisions to move the project to a successful conclusion – but your current supervisor insists on micro-managing every detail? Result: You will be annoyed.

Many times when you are unhappy at work, it’s because your values and the company’s values (or your supervisor’s values) are not aligned.

Take some time to think about which values are most important to you. Are they being met by your current position? Have your values changed since you started the position? Personal values change over time, but may people fail to notice the gradual shift until a major event (such as a lay-off) forces them to re-evaluate everything.

You can prepare yourself periodically reflecting on your values and how they have changed, as well as how the world in which you live has changed. This will allow you to pro-actively evaluate where you are in your career and set a direction for your future.

This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).