Life in Tech: The uncommon (and doable) path from engineering to law
By Davis Fehrman, MEng ’22 (MSE)
This life in tech interview is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were tasked with conducting an informational interview to learn more about working in tech. They then submitted a written account of the interview, edited and organized to create a clear, compelling narrative.
Per the interviewee’s request, personal identifying information has been removed.
As engineers, there are standard paths that seem to be laid out. Students graduate with their degrees and go on to pursue further academics or go into industry. Many of these engineers may end up in careers that they had not originally anticipated such as consulting or sales. Others may follow a more natural progression and start companies of their own. Luckily, an engineering background blesses those who choose to pursue it with a diverse set of skills that are widely applicable. But, because these molds often seem standard and pre-ordained, it is difficult to seek an engineering degree with the specific goal of not becoming an engineer at the end of the tunnel.
My interviewee attended Vanderbilt University through its football program, and with an interest in STEM in high school, decided to pursue a computer engineering degree, which combined aspects of both computer science and electrical engineering. Between difficult engineering classes and football practice, he had little time to consider what career path he truly wanted to commit to. He briefly toyed with the idea of staying at Vanderbilt to attain a PhD, but quickly pushed that aside as he felt that course would lead to a potential dead end for him. He decided to stay at Vanderbilt for his master’s degree and before he knew it, he found himself working at a semiconductor foundry researching micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). After a few years at this engineering firm that offered little vertical movement, he realized that, like many of the circuit-based systems he worked on, he had taken the path of least resistance. He had made it to the “goal” of the path that he took and realized that the thought of doing this in the long term did not appeal to him at all.
“After a few years at this engineering firm that offered little vertical movement, he realized that, like many of the circuit-based systems he worked on, he had taken the path of least resistance.”
While still working as a researcher, he shopped around and looked at various roles at start-ups, fellowships, and management-oriented positions at engineering firms before “casually” taking the LSAT. With a decent score in hand, he looked more into law and saw that people with STEM backgrounds were highly desired in patent law and related fields. To him, this was a new take on STEM and was the refresher that he was looking for. He could be involved in STEM without being stuck at a bench and had the potential for career growth that he wanted. Something clicked. His interest in engineering had been re-sparked, and his desire for a career with more opportunities for growth had presented itself to him. With newfound vigor, he set his nose to the grindstone and began clerking at a renowned international law firm during his second year at law school.
After graduating, he stayed on at the law firm and eventually became a partner, where he bounced between patent litigation and prosecution. His patent work focused primarily on semiconductors, but he continued to do work with MEMS, which he has a fresh interest in since stepping away from his former career. With his unique position as someone who worked in tech before moving to a more observational role, my interviewee made a few points on the transition between the two. Engineers and lawyers work closely with each other, and like in any team, communication is key. Unlike many other lawyers, he could talk to career engineers at a level that would get them to their goals.
Contrary to what many may believe, he believes that he is just as— if not more— involved in the technology that he enjoyed compared to when he was working as an engineer. He still considers himself to be more of an engineer than a lawyer; he takes the technology at hand, researches it, and then applies the necessary legal process to it.
As with any technology field, engineering sells. It is difficult to find a background better suited to the technology industry whether you plan on staying as an engineer or pursuing a different role, such as law. My interviewee said that one of his main attractions to patent law is how it grows with technology. Unlike other law fields, patent law does not generally change with government regulations but rather follows trends in the technology industry. His primary area of expertise has been semiconductors and MEMS, but he has begun to take cases on self-driving technology and artificial intelligence with applications in the pharmaceutical industry. He has been able to dabble in a wide array of engineering projects without being limited to a single engineering discipline. If you cannot seem to get away from engineering but not all of it seems right for you, you can sometimes have your cake and eat it too.
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Edited by Danielle Valdez.