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Scientists move to courtroom to fill niche in patent law

Demand is increasing for lawyers who know current technology

Intellectual property attorney Loretta W. Weathers moved from a plasma physics laboratory at MIT to a federal courtroom. (MATT ROURKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

PHILADELPHIA -- In a span of seven years, Loretta Weathers moved from a plasma physics laboratory at MIT to a federal courtroom, trading long days of crunching data for the adrenaline rush of high-stakes litigation.

The daughter of a Detroit autoworker, she had been tinkering with gadgets since she was a child. But after a few semesters in the prestigious PhD program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she abandoned the solitude of the lab for a journey that took her to law school and an unexpected career as a patent lawyer.

It's one of the hottest niches in law: the lawyer-scientist who understands technology and can explain it to a jury.

"It's maybe not as sexy as defending a murderer, but it's sexy in a different way," said Weathers, 31, who clerked with the federal appeals court in Washington that handles patent disputes.

Even in her first year on the job, Weathers got to work on a copyright-infringement case involving an insurance company that netted a nearly $19 million verdict. She put her science and math skills to work behind the scenes, building a database of more than 1,000 acts of alleged infringement.

Demand for these specialists is being driven by an explosion in patent applications in recent years and a growing need for lawyers to protect old patents or challenge new ones. The U S Patent and Trademark Office estimates 450,000 patent applications will be filed this year, up from about 350,000 five years ago.

Law professors say they're seeing more students with strong science backgrounds make the leap to law, where recruiters are snapping them up.

For at least some students who might otherwise gravitate toward a science career, the promise of much bigger paydays is a powerful lure. Others say the opportunities in academia are not as certain as they once were.

"It's an exciting area of legal practice right now," said University of Pennsylvania law professor R. Polk Wagner. "Every year I see more and more people coming into law school with technical backgrounds."

"It almost scares me," said Wagner, whose proteges include Weathers. "Who's left in the lab?"

The U S Supreme Court has also become interested in patent law, taking up more than a dozen cases, and it issued a highly anticipated ruling last month on the question of "obviousness" that could make it easier to challenge existing patents.

Congress, for its part, seems ready to address the issue of patent reform. Critics say that patents are being granted too easily and invite litigation that stifles, rather than rewards, innovation.

Stanford professor Mark Lemley, a noted patent lawyer involved in two of the recent Supreme Court cases, sees the legal landscape changing even within his classroom. Next to the more traditional law students with liberal arts backgrounds, he now finds a growing number of science majors of varying ages and backgrounds.

Last year, 140 students piled into his Introduction to Intellectual Property course, making it the largest class at the school.

"That's the kind of thing that 15 years ago would have been inconceivable," said Lemley, whose recent work includes a friend-of-court brief in a Supreme Court patent-infringement fight involving eBay Inc.

To harness that interest, Stanford is joining the handful of law schools that have started joint degree programs in science and law.

The field is also lucrative, especially compared with an academic career in the sciences.

Newly minted lawyers will earn $160,000 at the nation's top firms this year, and perhaps more with a postgraduate science degree or federal clerkship. The leading intellectual property firms plan to match or top that figure.

"You do make quite a bit more money than you do as a researcher or scientist," Weathers said, "but I wouldn't say that was my motivation."

Among other things, she missed using her writing and communication skills. "I got to the point where I no longer wanted to sit in front of a computer terminal going over graphs," Weathers said.

Ramon Tabtiang, 36, a native of Thailand, earned a Ph D in biochemistry at the University of California-San Francisco and spent two years at MIT doing postdoctoral work. But he, too, ultimately pursued a law career, earning a degree while working full time as a technical specialist at Fish & Richardson, a firm in Boston.

Tabtiang came to feel that future breakthroughs in the life sciences would be incremental at best. And while academia offered intellectual freedom, he found it came at a price -- the far lower salary.

"I think every individual, at one point or another -- having a family or wanting a different lifestyle -- is forced to confront the question of whether they really want to work in the pure sciences," said Tabtiang, a married father of two.