Brian Dingman, JD’86 and Leigh Martinson, JD’03 - Massachusetts runs on an economy based on knowledge. General manufacturing has migrated to other states (and other countries), replaced by next-generation, knowledge-based industries including the life sciences, IT, fiber optics and health care. Just as machine tools and capital equipment were the assets of yesterday’s manufacturers, intellectual property now provides the value in today’s economy.

As a result, Massachusetts is now home to some of the largest IP law firms in the country (see chart below), supported by growing numbers of technology specialists and attorneys with advanced degrees in science. The ability to successfully practice business law in Massachusetts now often relies on an attorney’s knowledge of molecular science, physics or biology, which explains the past decade’s trend of students with advanced degrees in chemical engineering or molecular biology being recruited by law firms and heading to law school.

One such attorney is Nathan Edwards, an associate at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner LLP in Cambridge — and a Harvard University graduate with a Ph.D. in biology. Edwards is a prime example of the new breed of technology lawyer, choosing to “leave the (lab) bench,” as he put it, to practice law instead of perhaps fast-tracking a high-profile bioscience career.

“I saw other people in the lab getting ready to start post-docs and brand-new projects, genuinely excited to start new research, but the idea of starting over at the bench with a new project was just not appealing to me,” said Edwards. “I love science, so I wanted to do something where I would be thinking about science. Patent law brings together science, education, policy and law, and that was very appealing to me.”

Dan Young, a patent agent with Boston’s Wolf Greenfield & Sacks PC, one of the largest IP law firms in the Northeast with about 60 IP attorneys, expressed similar sentiments. “As a scientist, I was drawn to the practical side of things, to the commercialization of IP,” said Young, who studied biomedical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and has a Ph.D. in biomedical science from University of Massachusetts Medical School. “I was involved in a patent application and got exposed to the world of patent law and saw it as a career option at the interface of technology transfer and commercialization — a chance to combine my skills as an engineer with the more practical, business side of things and help companies commercialize their technologies.”

Young represents the type of technologists that many intellectual property law firms seek out and cultivate with recruitment and training programs. “Many IP law firms like to have technologists on board to provide real-world insights into technology,” said Young. “So our firm, like many others, recruits scientists directly out of grad school or industry to work on project teams as a scientific advisor. That role often enables them to evolve into a patent attorney, going to law school at night, paid for by the firm.”

Edwards sees a technical background providing valuable, tangible advantages to his firm and how it practices law. “Our technologists enable our attorneys to jump into a case without the factual underpinnings of the case getting in the way. Our technologists understand how a scientist thinks and how they approach a problem, so they can help our attorneys and our technology clients.”

“Definitely, having a technology background provides some clear advantages,” says Brian Dingman, an IP attorney and partner at Mirick, O’Connell, DeMallie & Lougee LLP in Worcester and Westborough, and a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. “To be able to talk that language and be comfortable in that environment enables a technologist attorney to interview an inventor and extract the necessary information for a patent application. In fact, it’s particularly helpful in the patent realm because patents are written in a sort of problem/solution approach, which is at the heart of the scientific process. If you don’t have that training, you can struggle with writing a good patent.”

McDermott Will & Emery partner Leigh Martinson had worked at Raytheon Co. for several years before joining McDermott and attending Suffolk University Law School at night. He, too, believes his technical background gives him an edge. “Thinking practically about problems is probably easier for an engineer. While writing may be harder for a technical person, you tend to think more logically.”

“The methodical, scientific thought process can be a drawback as well, though,” says Dingman, “especially in cases where a freewheeling approach to creative thinking is more appropriate and desirable — for example, if I was asked to participate in a case involving, say, constitutional law, requiring much more abstract thinking.”
Mass High Tech, May 12, 2010