Is there a doctor in the courtroom? An advanced degree can help your career

  • July 01, 2015
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

John Norman did not initially plan to become a lawyer.

“I was really into science,” says Norman, who has a master’s degree in molecular genetics and a doctoral degree in biochemistry. “My wife makes the joke that I was like one of the guys on The Big Bang Theory.”

Norman, now a partner at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, is just one Canadian lawyer who uses his advanced academic credentials in practising law.

At the time when he was completing his PhD, many students were having difficulty finding post-doctoral research positions because of grant cutbacks, says Norman.

He became interested in law after attending a seminar where a representative from a global pharmaceutical company described the advantages of blending science with the law.

“I remember I was walking home with my wife and I said, ‘I'm going to apply to a professional school.’ And she said, ‘I was wondering when you were going to say that. So when are you going to write the MCAT?’” Norman says with a laugh. “And I said, ‘Actually I'm thinking about law school.’ And she said, ‘You've got to be kidding me.’”

After finishing his PhD while attending law school – “I would never recommend that to anyone” – Norman says he had a “surprisingly easy” time finding a job.

“I would go to firms and say that I'm interested in patent litigation and I've got a scientific background,” he says. “I didn't apply to very many firms but I was very successful in getting offers.”

Since then, Norman has used his academic background in everything from reading patents to talking to expert witnesses and even in cross-examination.

“I find that sometimes non-scientists get bamboozled and they stop asking questions because they don't understand the science. So if you understand the science, it's easier,” he says.

Norman says that as an intellectual property lawyer, he deals with science on a daily basis.

“Patent applications, dealing with experts, doing cross-examination, preparing for trial, preparing for applications – it's all science day in and day out,” he says. “I feel that I still use my science as much as I would in academia.”

Danny Kharazmi, who holds a master’s in public administration and a master’s in business administration, says that his background in business is particularly helpful in his career.

“I think having an MBA helps you engage with clients on a different level,” says Kharazmi, an associate with Wildeboer Dellice LLP. “I have a better understanding of the business of my clients.”

Kharazmi says his MBA helped him expand his network, giving him a competitive advantage when applying for jobs.

“You come into a law firm interview with lots of contacts,” he says.

Networking can be one of the benefits of pursuing advanced education, says Toronto immigration lawyer Elizabeth Long.

A partner at Long Mangalji LLP, Long recently finished her master’s degree in labour relations and employment law.

“Some of my classmates are the leading practitioners in labour and employment law,” she says. “It was a great opportunity to network and share ideas and contacts.”

Long says her master’s degree has allowed her to combine her practice area of immigration law with her research in labour and employment law for foreign workers.

“It was a great experience,” says Long. “It gives me a greater understanding of what I can do for my clients.”

Norman says that advanced degrees are becoming more popular among lawyers.

“In interviewing applicants for jobs, we're seeing more and more students coming in with advanced science and engineering degrees,” he says. “It's not as rare in law as it used to be.”

Norman says he “absolutely” recommends that aspiring intellectual property lawyers pursue science before becoming lawyers. “I think it's a great background. It teaches you how to think analytically. It's great training.”

Doctoral degrees used to be rare even among legal academics, but this is changing.

“Now lot of the people who are getting hired at law schools as professors have PhDs,” says Angela Cameron, a professor at the University of Ottawa. “If you look at the pool of candidates applying to work at the University of Ottawa, more and more of them have PhDs and even post-docs.”

Cameron, who finished her doctoral degree in 2012, did not originally plan to pursue a career in academia.

“I did my LLM initially out of curiosity,” she says. “I thought it would be a brief diversion from practice and then I would eventually come back to practice.”

But during graduate school, Cameron began doing contract work as a researcher and writer for human rights organizations and non-governmental organizations.

“I got to work with organizations that I really felt were making a difference or making an impact on policy and law,” she says. “And I thought, if I were a professor maybe I could do this for the rest of my life.”

Cameron describes her decision to do a PhD as an “incremental one.”

“I looked around and realized that to get hired as a professor at a law school was quite competitive and a PhD was becoming more of a necessity,” she says, adding “of course many successful legal academics also choose the master’s route.”

Her doctoral studies, which focused on legal responses to violence against women, continues to help her in her career, Cameron says.

“It's been incredibly useful in that I use it in teaching and I use it in the social justice work I do in the community, which I really love,” she adds. “Being a professor is a fantastic job in that sense – I can keep doing the stuff I care about.”

About the Author

Carolynne Burkholder-James is a former journalist and an associate with Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C.