Take a look at this interview with Bird & Bird Associate Ning-Ning, who began her law career with a biochemistry degree. Ning-Ning discusses her motivations around the career change, and how her science background has prepared her as well as she could ever have imagined…


Name: Ning-Ning Li

Year of Qualification: 2012

University Degree: Biochemistry

Position: Associate

Department: IP


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How long have you worked at Bird & Bird?

Over seven years now – I joined as a trainee back in September 2010. Time really flies!

What was your biggest challenge as a trainee?

To develop an understanding of where the tasks to which I was assigned fitted into the matter as a whole.

As a trainee you may sometimes only see fragments of a matter, but understanding what was going on at a ‘big picture’ level is a skill that is important to begin developing early on. It will help you to complete tasks more effectively and organise your time.

What made you want to pursue a career in law?

Although I have always been interested in science, I struggled with the practical side and realised laboratory work was definitely not for me!

Through chatting to friends, I found out that taking the Law Conversion Course and becoming a solicitor with a focus on IP would give me the opportunity to use many of the soft skills developed during my degree, as well as giving me a bit of an edge when it came to more technical pharmaceutical/life sciences patents.

How do you leverage your expertise in science in your career as a lawyer?

As mentioned above, a scientific background can be helpful when it comes to matters involving pharmaceutical/life sciences patents.

Although you won’t necessarily have studied that particular molecule/technique at university, it certainly helps to understand the subject matter of such patents when you are familiar with basic concepts such as antibodies, genes and mass spectrometry.

It is particularly invaluable during meetings with potential experts on a case, where you may be discussing the expert’s opinion on various scientific papers.

I remember that one of the first patent matters I worked on as a trainee involved a tyrosine kinase, an enzyme that adds a phosphate molecule onto proteins – one of the key roles of a trainee in an expert meeting is to take a very detailed note of what the expert says and it certainly helped that I was able to follow what was going on and spell “phosphorylation”!

A scientific background can also be a selling point if the firm is pitching for new work – clients (particularly from overseas companies) are always pleased to find out that we have some background and understanding of their products/technology, and this can help us to provide them with more relevant commercial advice.

What skills do you think you gained as a scientist that are transferable to the role of a lawyer?

I think the first key skill is the ability to read a large amount of dense text (think research papers) and pull out the key points in a concise form. We are often faced with a large volume of documents and need to construct a case by identifying the helpful parts (to our client) and presenting them in a persuasive way.

Another key skill is the ability to approach problems in a logical way. Clients come to us with a particular problem, and it is our job to deconstruct the problem to its legal issues, do the research on those issues, and construct a viable and commercial solution.

Do you think having limited legal work experience makes the transition difficult or does your background give you an advantage?

A lack of legal work experience is definitely not a hindrance to being a trainee, because most of what you do is learnt on the job in any event.

Having a background outside law is an advantage because you bring a wide skill set to the table, as discussed above.

What are the common misconceptions about being a lawyer with a science background?

That we only get to work on patent matters that are very science-heavy.

The IP department at Bird & Bird has a very wide range of expertise in many different sectors and so there is no need to feel ‘pigeon-holed’ into a particular area.

I have kept a relatively broad practice and work almost equally on trade mark matters and patent matters.

On the trade mark side, I have worked for a variety of interesting brands such as Associated Newspapers (they publish the Metro newspaper) and Monster (the energy drink).

Finally, what advice do you have about the application process for the vacation scheme/training contract?

Try to demonstrate why you want to go into law, and that you have made an effort to find out about the career and the firm.

Coming from a science background, I had no legal work experience, but I spoke to friends who were doing the GDL, read the legal guides aimed at students (Lex 100 etc), attended legal recruitment events at university and made sure I spoke to the people at the Bird & Bird law fair (as well as other law firms that I was applying for at the time). 

Some firms also do open days which give you a further opportunity to find out more and ask lots of questions!


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