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I worked for a small laboratory focused on industrial and environmental microbiology. It was a really fun job. Most of my time was spent performing tests to identify bacterial contaminants in commercial products like paint, food, and industrial water sources.
The job had two major drawbacks. First, I was stuck in a lab with the same three people every day. Even though my coworkers were wonderful, it left me feeling a little stifled. Second, after taxes, I barely brought home enough money to cover my car and other minimal expenses. I pondered applying to medical school and PhD programs. Deep down, I recognized that although microbiology was a lot of fun, it wasn’t where all of my natural talents or interests lied. After a few months, I felt secure in my decision to enter law school.
Many people found it strange that I made a leap from microbiology to law, as most law students seem to have backgrounds in political science or business. I first had the idea when I was a senior at university, when a professor mentioned that many pharmaceutical companies were sending their scientists to law school because they needed patent licensing expertise. I was outgoing and really loved writing and giving presentations. Law offered the opportunity to use both my technical background and my writing and presentation skills. I saved money working as a microbiologist and by living at home, so I was well-positioned to enter law school. I graduated in 2003 with only $36,000 student debt and a very low interest rate (3%) on my loans.
I attended law school full-time during the day. Classes typically wrapped up around 2 p.m. I worked up to 15 hours per week as a microbiologist during my first year-and-a-half of law school. It was an unrelenting pace. I would typically return from work around 6 p.m. and then study until 1 a.m. Rinse. Repeat. I made the choice to keep up this schedule because it was allowing me to minimize my student loan debt, which would in turn give me more freedom to take a wider range of jobs (instead of feeling pressured to accept a lucrative position in an area of law that didn’t interest me).
Looking back, I have no idea how I kept up this pace! It was a lot of sacrifice, and I often felt pangs of jealousy toward my friends with jobs during that time. Most of them were already on their second homes before I had saved enough money to move out of my parents’ house. In the long run, though, I was so happy I made the decisions I did. I missed some great parties, but I walked out with a degree and less debt than most of my fellow students.
I left my position as a microbiologist by my last year of law school, but kept my position as a law clerk. I made $14 per hour, but the law firm billed me out at about $80 per hour. I gained my first exposure to technology-transfer work, and I fell in love. Many lawyers enjoy the adversarial aspect of the job, but I love being a mediator and negotiator, because it helps people come together — hopefully to create something new and special. It’s hard to believe, but in the 13 years I’ve been practicing law, I’ve closed more than 3,000 negotiations successfully.
I wanted to work in biotechnology, but I live in the auto capital of the world. I took a job working with a regulatory affairs consultant, tapping out menial tasks at his kitchen table for $10 an hour. He told me I would never make more than that. The next week, I had two job offers, one for $45,000 and another for $55,000. I took the latter.
The man who told me I wouldn’t command more than $10 per hour eventually sought me out to take over his business, as he moved toward retirement and other endeavors. I’m glad I stayed in touch with him over the years. We’ve never worked together again, but he is an amazing art collector, and I’ve learned a lot from him.