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How my biochemistry degree was the perfect training for becoming an IP lawyer

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When you act for some of the world’s leading life sciences and technology companies, it helps to speak their language, says Bristows’ Gemma Barrett — ahead of her appearance at ‘Why STEM students make great lawyers’ in London next week

Once upon a time, lawyers studied law. Or rather, lawyers only studied law.

The modern world is different. Today’s lawyers are as likely to have a first degree in a non-law subject as they are to have an LLB under their belt. Increasingly, that non-law degree might be in a STEM subject — one from science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Gemma Barrett, a contentious IP specialist at Bristows, is among this cohort. Why did she decide to convert to law? And could it be that STEM graduates make the best lawyers?

Barrett, who graduated from Oxford with a Master’s in biochemistry in 2004, says the law appealed to her because “of its emphasis on analytical thinking, which was very similar to my first degree.” Moreover, while she enjoyed the academic side of her degree, Barrett wasn’t so keen on “projects in the lab — they didn’t suit me. I was looking for a career that would enable me to use my science background, but in a more commerical setting.”

Bristows’ Gemma Barrett

Barrett’s careers advisor suggested law, and a stint on a couple of vacation schemes further kindled her interest. With A-levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths, Barrett set about finding a training contract with a law firm before enrolling at BPP Law School to complete a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). Then came the Legal Practice Course (LPC), again at BPP. In 2006, Barrett began work with Bristows, this year’s Legal 500 TMT Firm of the Year, and long regarded as one of the UK’s best in IP and tech-related law. She hasn’t looked back since, and, on 1 November, becomes a partner with the firm.

“I’ve always enjoyed the work with Bristows,” says Barrett. “My focus is on litigation in the chemical and life sciences sector, and my biochemistry degree is brilliant for this. For example a lot of what I do entails analysing pharmaceutical patents, then developing legal arguments which required an understanding of the technology and liaising with experts. Much of my work is on a global basis as it is rare for lawyers in other countries to have a STEM background so they need assistance in understanding the technology.” She continues:

“My degree gives me a sound understanding of the underlying processes in my core work, which are cases involving small molecule pharmaceuticals, molecular diagnostics, biologics, antibody technology and industrial chemicals. I think STEM students are a natural fit for this kind of work. And as a mother with two small children, I can also testify to how family-friendly the firm is. People here work hard, but they’re encouraged to have a good work/life balance.”

Barrett acts for some of the world’s leading life sciences and technology companies, and was listed as an IP Rising Star by Managing IP’s IP Stars (2017). And while she admits that, when she entered the legal profession, she sensed “a strange, lingering prejudice to the effect that STEM students weren’t good at communication”, that’s no longer the case. In fact, says Barrett, STEM subjects promote good communication skills.

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“Essay writing was very important in my degree,” says Barrett, who also completed a Diploma in Intellectual Property Law and Practice via Oxford in 2010. “It wasn’t all about practical work in a laboratory. You have to be able to communicate things, clearly and concisely. Attention to detail is also vital in STEM subjects, as it is in the law. These things are second nature to someone from a STEM background.”

Barrett proves the point not just by her easy articulacy but by regularly appearing on panels, making presentations, co-editing reports that Bristows produce for the CIPA Journal and writing for various blogs and journal as well as co-authoring the UK chapter of the American Intellectual Property Law Association’s International Patent Litigation guide. Given the rigorous logic and analytical thought processes that go with every STEM subject, does Barrett think STEM graduates make the best lawyers? Aren’t they, for example, not just ideal for intricate patent and other IP litigation but for the fast-developing fintech sector?

Barrett demurs:

“STEM students will naturally understand scientific processes in a way that arts-based graduates won’t, but that’s not to say that these things are incomprehensible to non-STEM graduates. Just like many of the issues lawyers encounter aren’t met at undergraduate or even GDL and LPC level; they arrive only in the course of practice. So lawyers need an enquiring mind and, often enough, a commercial sense of the world, as much as academic excellence in a particular subject. That said, a firm like Bristows will always be interested in STEM students, given the kind of work we do.”

And Barrett, who is one of Bristows’ training contract interviewers, offers advice for prospective lawyers that applies whether candidates have STEM, arts or even law degrees:

“You need to get some experience of the profession, and the best way is to attend workshops, go on vacation schemes, do plenty of research — in other words, immerse yourself in the law as much as you can, so that you know what working in it will be like. When you’re asked ‘Why do you want to be a lawyer?’, you need a good answer.”

Gemma Barrett will be speaking at ‘Why STEM students make great lawyers’ at LexisNexis in London on Wednesday 8 November. Apply to attend.

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