Attorney is typically the first profession that comes to mind within law, but there are many careers within this sector for medical and life-science trainees, requiring little formal legal training. Several decades ago, there was no biotechnology-specific case law or legislation. Today, US patents cover everything from single genes to multicellular organisms.

As law has evolved, so have the options for graduates wanting to pursue a career in science-related law. There are programs that sponsor a PhD through law school as well as opportunities for those who do not want formal training but wish to use their technical expertise to become registered patent agents or technology-transfer specialists. Technical biomedical expertise is critical to successfully structuring mergers and acquisitions, managing intellectual property, establishing claims on patents, and executing licensing deals within this sector. A former trainee may be able to work for Bay Area law firms such as Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Morrison & Foerster, and Latham & Watkins. Some work in the general-counsel or intellectual-property sides of companies and organizations. Some of these opportunities include:


The role of a patent lawyer on a life-sciences team requires one to have completed a JD. Patent law includes responsibilities like drafting and filing patent applications, prosecuting patent applications through to grant, defending clients' patents and opposing third-party patents, as well as advising clients on where they have freedom to use their products in view of patents owned by others.

Patent Agents

Many former trainees begin their law careers as patent agents before completing their JDs to become patent attorneys. To become a patent agent, science graduates must pass the exam set by the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). If successful, they are allowed to write patents and represent clients before the PTO. Law firms, universities, and biotech and pharmaceutical companies routinely employ patent agents. Typically, one would manage her or his company's patent portfolio and licensing agreement. Key differences between a patent attorney and patent agent are that the latter tends to have less clearly defined roles inside companies than patent lawyers do, and patent agents would not be allowed to handle litigation. Prior to taking the patent exam, one may gain experience as a patent analyst.

Technology-Transfer Specialists

For those who are not interested in law school or patent-agent exams, the role of technology-transfer specialist offers another route into the legal field. This type of role provides a link between intellectual property and business for companies or universities. Typical responsibilities include ensuring patent protection for scientist inventors; licensing inventions to biotech and pharmaceutical companies; and reviewing and drafting material-transfer agreements, sponsored research, and collaboration agreements.

Desired Skills for Law

In addition to one's scientific expertise, communication is key to all of these roles as a fair amount of time will be spent meeting with inventors, understanding their new technologies, and helping them define these innovations within legal boundaries. More specifically, it is valuable to have strong negotiation, advocacy, presentation, and writing skills because one will have to persuade patent examiners that clients' inventions are new and innovative.

Typical Job Titles

  • Patent Attorney
  • Intellectual Property Attorney
  • Patent Agent
  • Patent Analyst
  • Technology-Transfer Specialist
  • General Counsel

Give us feedback