April 14, 2014 – Biomedical research is a multibillion-dollar sector that is set to play a crucial role in the 21st century economy, according to three recent University of Houston Law Center alums who are part of the new legal workforce that is coalescing around Houston’s growing life sciences industry.
Nathan Andersen, Craig Conway, and Rohan Hebbar, all recent graduates of the Health Law LL.M. program, visited Professor Barbara Evans’ Biotechnology & Law and Health Law evening classes on April 9 to discuss their work in legal and regulatory affairs at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. UTMB is an academic medical center, which means it not only offers a full range of hospital and trauma care for patients but also operates cutting-edge research facilities dedicated to discovering the breakthrough medical treatments of tomorrow. Those research facilities include one of the nation’s few Biosafety Level 4 labs where potent pathogens can be studied under a carefully controlled, highly secure, and heavily regulated environment.
“The complexities of regulatory compliance in the modern biomedical research environment are such that many institutions are finding that they now need lawyers for executive and compliance positions that a decade ago might have been staffed with non-legal specialists like an MBA or bioethicist,” observed Andersen, senior legal officer and public information officer in the legal department at UTMB.
Hebbar explained how research administration and compliance work can provide a much-needed entry-level pathway for new graduates. After starting out in such work, he recently transferred into the legal department as associate legal officer with primary responsibility for research agreements, intellectual property agreements, confidentiality, and material transfer agreements.
In response to student questions, the three suggested areas to consider for career entry include research compliance, technology transfer, procurement, and life sciences and laboratory oversight generally. They also agreed that health data privacy will continue to be a focus as the health industry grows more dependent on health information technology.
The three emphasized that an LL.M. is not strictly necessary to enter the life sciences workforce. They each used their LL.M. training to “pivot” into life sciences law from other practice areas -- general litigation, criminal law or, in Hebbar’s case, after trying his hand as a sports lawyer representing professional athletes in contract negotiations. A carefully structured J.D. curriculum can sufficiently equip students to enter the life sciences legal workforce. They advised students to resist the urge to specialize too narrowly. “The health industry is so dynamic, you need to be well-rounded so you can think and spot legal issues outside your own area of expertise,” Andersen noted.
Conway, compliance attorney for research ethics and conflicts of interest, urged students also to seize opportunities while in law school to learn how to manage people and hone one’s communications skills. “Lawyers are not always the most skilled natural communicators. Taking a course in negotiating skills or a management class at the business school or participating in moot court or group projects can be as crucial as your substantive legal coursework,” he said.
Any student wishing to work in the in-house legal environment should “take a course in employment law and take it seriously,” added Andersen, who emphasized that young lawyers entering their first jobs need to “know the boundaries and never step outside of them: keep your wits about you at all times.” The three also reminded students that the most important part of legal communication isn’t talking -- it’s listening.