How One Attorney Turned a $10-an-hour Tech Job Into a Career In Patent Law: Hear the Story at ‘Starting Out Solo’

By Amber Nimocks

Ever wonder how lawyers with great jobs got their sweet gigs? Then this free event is for you. Join us at the N.C. Bar Center on Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. for a panel of practicing attorneys who have career advice to share. Get more details and register here.

Panelists are Nicholas Dowgul of Felton Banks PLLC, Wes Saunders of the N.C. DOJ, Lyle Gravatt with NK Patent Law, and Daniel Moose of The Law Offices of Daniel R. Moose. Starting Out Solo is free, and dinner will be provided, so RSVP. All law students and legal professionals who want to learn more about law practice management are encouraged to attend. For questions, contact Jeremy Williams.

In advance of the panel, Lyle Gravatt answered a few questions about his path from $10-an-hour tech analyst to firm attorney with NK Patent Law.

Q: With experience as an entrepreneur and a degree in physics, what motivated you to pursue a law degree and practice?

A: I had a very nontraditional pathway to a legal career. I started out as a biophysics researcher and slowly realized that being in a lab just wasn’t for me. I had some skills as an extrovert that the lab setting didn’t allow me to use. And working in a lab has a very narrow focus. So, I went the complete opposite direction and I got involved in entrepreneurship, particularly sales. That again steered me toward an industry that was very narrowly focused. I was merely exercising the social aspects of myself and not really challenging the intellectual aspects. After trying out those two extremes I felt like the legal field would allow me to exercise my intellectual passions and my passion for people and my more extroverted tendencies. And intellectual property law allowed me to dive back into the science, which I always enjoyed.

Q: How did you arrive at your current position?

A: When I first graduated from law school at the University of Mississippi, I went to work for the law school developing a pro bono program that’s now in place. After I left, I was studying for the Louisiana bar, and I was really struggling, trying to get an IT job in that area. So, I packed up my bags, I put a bunch of suits in the car, printed out a bunch of resumes and I went on a Southeast tour – where all my friends lived —  and started knocking on doors because emails and phone calls weren’t working.

When I got here to the Triangle area, somebody hired me for $10 an hour to be a tech analyst. It was a company that was associated with a law firm, where the tech company and the law firm worked together and were housed in the same offices. That was my in. I started out as a tech analyst, and a year later I was working in the law firm, and two years later I was transitioning out to a traditional law firm.

I saw the tech job as an opportunity to get into the company with my science background and allow myself to gain some legal experience and hopefully transition to the legal side, which did happen.

Q: Taking a job working for $10 an hour must have been a financial risk for you.

A: It was. I moved up here, I did some couch surfing with some friends, I went back to my college days of eating Ramen noodles and just put my head to the ground and waited for the money to come.

Q: So, the lesson is you don’t always get to where you want to go by the most direct route.

A: Exactly. You’ve got to do the grunt work, put your head down and some of the lessons and the efficiencies will come with experience. I think a critical part of starting out in your legal career is being humble, even though you’re taught to be aggressive and assertive, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You can choose to pick your battles and choose to assert certain aspects of your personality when it best suits your career.

Q: What lessons transfer to the legal field from your experience as an entrepreneur?  

A: With entrepreneurship, a lot of times you’re delving into territories that are not only completely unfamiliar to you but are completely unfamiliar to most people. You’re trying to create something new. A lot of times in the legal field, although the bulk of what we do is recycle old arguments, the most exciting stuff is when you’re coming upon a new issue or a new problem or a new situation and are able to take old solutions and apply them to new situations. That’s one of the key aspects.

The other is, with entrepreneurship a lot of what you’re doing is mitigating risk and with the legal field you’re doing the same. You’re evaluating the risk of clients’ real problems and you’re letting them know: here are the different scenarios that you have going forward, what kind of risk profile are you in, and how do we want to proceed?

Q: What challenges facing new lawyers today are different than those faced by past generations?

A: A lot of lawyers coming out right now have two barriers that previous generations didn’t face. One is they are labeled as millennials, which means they have a reputation for not working hard and maybe being a little entitled. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I think that is a public perception problem. I also think the legal field is much more competitive than it used to be. For one, there are more law school graduates. Second, technology now allows clients to shop around fairly easily and quickly.

There are some challenges to getting a job directly in the legal field, and I think law school graduates need to think about taking alternative pathways to the career that they want. Look at it long-term and take hits in the short term to get to where you need to be.

Q: What is one bit of advice you’d offer to attorneys just starting out?

A: Most attorneys coming out of law school are fairly competent and type-A personalities, and the inclination for somebody like that is to be very opinionated and assert their legal opinion and kind of blaze their own path. I would caution most new attorneys to take more experienced professionals at their word and try to apply the lessons they’re giving you before you do too much questioning. Applying the lessons of veterans that have been there, you’ll learn that a lot of your preconceived notions don’t fall quite as squarely with reality as you thought. There are always some exceptions to the rules and there are always some counter-intuitive lessons to learn. … Some lessons must be learned through experience and can’t be absorbed by merely reading about them.