Career Audit

Experience Expected

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When Nancy N. Quan graduated from law school in January 2003, she already had been working for 25 years.

A chemist with a doctorate in the field, Quan not only had management experience but also legal management experience –he had been the director of a patent department for a major corporation and was a patent agent.

But none of that made a difference to big law firms, which were ready to hire her only as a first-year associate, she says. With her prior work experience, she knew more about the technical aspects of patent applications than some of the senior partners at those firms, Quan says.

Stymied in her efforts to get a big-firm job at a level that matched her experience, she practiced for a little over a year on her own in Minneapolis before accepting a job as vice president and chief intellectual property counsel for a Culver City, Calif., technology company. “I wasn’t thinking I could be anybody’s assistant in a law firm; it was just impossible,” Quan says. “I wasn’t going to have somebody telling me what to do on the things that I have been doing for years and years.”

However, law firms were not willing to consider her for any position other than a traditional first-year associate, she says. “For some reason, law firms all have this idea that how long you have been working as a lawyer is more important than whatever experience you have.”

In fact, law firms do think this way–and, often, correctly, career experts say. That’s because new law school graduates, no matter how skilled in their former jobs, still have a lot to learn about practicing law.

Prior work experience may help a law student win a job while others with comparable academic records receive rejection letters. But firms typically expect to start recent graduates as first-years, even when they come with lots of relevant work experience.

Starting at the bottom with everyone else gives even hires most seasoned in another field a much-needed chance to learn the different skills required of attorneys, says Carol Kanarek, a New York City lawyer and career counselor. “If you come in at an elevated level, you’re missing all of that first-year training and orientation and all of those things that are so important to really making your way in the organization.”

Coming in as a mid-level associate or higher, “even if you can talk somebody into doing it, it’s probably not a good idea,” Kanarek continues. “If you don’t go through all the phases of being a junior-level lawyer, you are much more likely to fail.”

Capitalizing On Expertise

But prior work experience can be a huge help, especially with technical or scientific knowledge that few liberal arts majors possess. That kind of background can boost a lawyer both when looking for a first job and in succeeding once hired.

“Nurses or doctors often can capitalize on that,” Kanarek says. “Any kind of technical expertise that will enable you to be admitted to the patent bar will certainly be a big plus. Generally speaking, being in the securities or financial services industries will enable you to hit the ground running in certain kinds of practices and progress more rapidly than other people without that background.”

But techies take note: Some firms scorn those who are too specialized.

Instead, says Carl Oppedahl, a partner in a Dillon, Colo., patent firm, an intellectual property lawyer needs a basic background in a wide variety of scientific and technology disciplines and the ability to learn quickly. “Patent law firms would prefer to hire a Renais­sance person, a person with aptitude in many technical areas,” he says.

When they bring in a new attorney with lots of experience in one area, employers worry about whether the lawyer will be too focused on his or her area of expertise, Oppedahl says. Also, employers likely will be concerned that they don’t get as much return for the time they spend training the new attorney, because he or she probably won’t spend as many years working for the firm.

“Having years of experience adds nothing and is, in fact, a slight negative for many potential employers,” he says.

There is one exception: a doctorate in biochemistry. “Many inventors in the biotech world are unlikely to be willing to spend time explaining introductory things to a patent attorney and are going to want to have somebody with the credentials of a Ph.D. to whom they will explain their invention,” Oppedahl says. “This desire on the part of the clients is very naturally a driver to the hiring of the patent firms.”

To maximize their chances, applicants with significant experience should try to show on their resumés a strong connection between prior work and the job they are seeking, Oppedahl says.

“A clear concern,” he says, “is that the muddled resumé, showing what might be many career attempts, would make me wonder whether the person is going to stick with the practice of law–which is what they would have to do for me to justify investing several years of training time.”

For those insistent on using prior work experience to catapult past the first few years as a lowly associate, the most realistic option may be to launch a legal career from an in-house or government job.

“If you have a lot of really good industry-specific experience, you might be better off going back into that industry, in the legal department, right from law school, rather than to a law firm,” Kanarek says.

Quan would agree. “In-house, they like all the corporate experience because corporate experience is something they’re looking for,” Quan says. She is a past chair of the Solo and Small Firm Practitioners Committee of the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section. But Oppedahl worries about new lawyers going solo, as Quan did. They haven’t been taught in law school how to practice, he says.

“In the world of patent law, in particular, even after several years of experience, going solo is a profound mistake,” he says. “You won’t be able to keep up with changes in the law. You won’t be able to do proper docketing of upcoming due dates. You’ll be forever tempted to work in areas that go beyond your technical knowledge. And you’ll never be able to go on vacation.”

Quan still maintains that the firms that didn’t sufficiently credit her prior work life are the ones at a disadvantage. “I think, personally, they’re missing out on a lot of talent,” she says.

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