Design engineering is by no means a boring field. But for me, being stuck in a sea of Dilbert-occupied cubicles quickly pushed me to pursue a career in patent law.

Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky to have such a great job right out of college, but when I regularly saw so many “seasoned” engineers snoring in their office next to me and clearly wearing the same tie for 30 years, all I could think was, I don’t want to be that Slimline Stapler guy. 

It wasn’t always a terrible job. I worked for a good company, had a lot of close friends, and eventually landed on good projects with unique challenges. I also met my wife Heather there. But being just a little cog in this huge wheel was so boring to me. It wasn’t fulfilling and the path forward was murky at best. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t that. 

From a Cubicle to Law School

It didn’t take long behind a cubicle wall to realize I couldn’t do it forever. Another engineer that I had become friendly with started talking about law school. He was several years in himself and mentored me a little bit on that path. 

I took the LSATs and got into Rutgers University in New Jersey, starting just over a year after I had finished my undergraduate degree. I was still working full-time, so being able to go to school in-state really helped. The law school dream was within reach.

I would work all day and then go to school at night with other “looking for a second career” students.  At work, I eventually wound up managing some big redevelopment projects, travelling regularly to the towns where there was a need, and managing the environmental remediation and overall construction. I was 23 and making presentations to town planners, historical boards, and city councils in addition to overseeing construction crews, and tweaking the construction designs as needed. In retrospect that type of role was more aligned with the advocacy I practice as a lawyer now than it was with being an engineer.

When an engineering job in California came up, I decided to take it. They offered my wife (also an engineer) a position, too. And so I eventually finished my law degree in California.

The Transition

When it was all said and done, I attended four different law schools to get my degree, which is formally from Rutgers University.  I have law school transcripts cobbled together from Rutgers, The University of the Pacific, Santa Clara University, and The University of San Francisco. But I finished law school in Silicon Valley in 1997, and with an engineering degree behind it, the job market was just wonderful.

I began to work with an intellectual property law firm in California, and that has been my practice ever since. This was the late nineties, at the beginning of the dot-com craziness. There was plenty of work from patent and trademark prosecution to the related litigation and transactional work surrounding those disciplines; everything that we do here today.

In 1998, the competition between companies for lawyers in that field was just nuts. I got two or three raises before I even began working for my firm. My original offer letter was in late ’97, and by the time I actually started working in April 1998 I had received several raises.

Those were the moves in my life that started the career I’m enjoying now. In that first firm I was able to participate in some big trials in addition to the patent prosecution work, giving me the skill set that I needed to establish myself as a patent attorney.

Living in California began to get a little more hectic than we had imagined. Heather and I went from spending every weekend in the mountains to becoming new parents in the heart of Silicon Valley — and all the stress and busyness that comes with it. To bring a calmer and more predictable sense to our lives, I quit my job and moved my family from San Jose to Boulder, Colorado. I didn’t even have a job lined up when I resigned, but the market was still so good, I wasn’t worried.

Avoiding Big Law Burnout

I immediately took a job with a big national law firm. The hours were long, there was a lot of work, and I was traveling a lot for these giant, awesome cases.

At its core, the work was great. I worked with some amazing people and got a lot of really unique opportunities. I had a really good run there, but it took its toll as well.

I suffered a unique case of “Big-Law Burnout.” In a nutshell, what started off as a cut on my elbow turned into a near-sepsis scare and some hospital time where I very nearly died. During all of that, I was doing deposition designations from a hospital bed, and hooking IV antibiotic bags up on the wall at work once I left the hospital.

A perfectly normal life, right? No.

That was the beginning of the end for me in big law.

I can’t say anything bad about the firm or the job, other than there was just too much work. I loved the people, they treated me very well, and they still support me and our firm today through referrals and the like. Working there gave me the skills to develop my own practice and achieve a more balanced approach to what I do now.

How a Dream Became a Firm

During a short stint in-house, I began reaching out to my clients to see what they thought about the idea of me opening my own practice, and they were ready to start working right away. By the end of the first month after hanging that shingle, I was already profitable. And it wasn’t long before I was making more than I was at my last firm, with less work and of course, more control to make it fit my own lifestyle.

We’ve been growing steadily over the years. I met Sean O’Dowd at the previous law firm and he came over shortly after I opened up. A year later we had formally partnered up and we’ve enjoyed slow and steady growth over the years.

Building relationships is the most exciting part of my job. Now with a larger firm, and a stable slate of work, when a client asks me for something I can’t do, or I know someone else here can do better, I can refer it to someone within our firm family that I know will treat them well.

My favorite type of client is one that calls to ask me a 90-second question and we wind up on the phone for 30 or 40 minutes chatting about everything else in life. It’s that relationship that makes the engagement so much better.

In the end, the dream has become a reality; a firm that we are all proud to be a part of. Engineering is still exciting but I like taking the broad brush approach and becoming knowledgeable across a wide range of technologies and industries and knowing how to steer a company or client in the right direction.

Keep Reading: From Network Engineer to Intellectual Property Attorney: Meet Shane Percival