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The Student View: Norton Rose Fulbright’s Jonathan Ball on forensics, IP and his route to law

Jonathan Ball of Norton Rose Fulbright initially worked as a scientist before becoming a lawyer, and is now an Intellectual Property and Technology disputes partner. Here, Jonathan discusses his career and the nature of his work and offers some helpful tips for students and professionals from other careers who are interested in a career in law.

Before becoming a lawyer you worked as a forensic scientist at the Metropolitan Police. Please tell us a little bit about your previous career.

I studied Biochemistry at university and was due to start a PGCE to become a school teacher, but I got talking with the Metropolitan Police at a jobs fair in London and a few months later I was working for them as a forensic scientist. It was one of those things that came about by happenstance. As a general forensic caseworker on the bio-sciences side, I was working mainly on violent crime. Over time the job became more specialised in the DNA profiling area and I found that type of lab-based work less interesting, which is one of the reasons why I thought about other potential careers.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

I was in and out of the criminal courts as a forensic scientist and was exposed to the legal system and the law. When I was thinking about what I might want to do, my first thought was to become a criminal barrister. I explored that but worked out early on that it was a bit of a financial risk for someone in their mid-twenties. I then looked for some other options in the law, particularly at the larger commercial firms. A couple of friends of mine had re-qualified as lawyers so I spoke with them. I took some work experience and decided that it was something I was definitely interested in.

Tell us a bit about your IP and tech disputes practice and the work that it covers.

Our practice here does all of the work that I would describe as traditional IP litigation: patent, trademark, trade secrets and copyright litigation, though given the nature of the practice the copyright work tends to be in software as opposed to literary copyright. We also advise on a broad range of traditional IP licensing disputes.

Beyond that it’s a fairly broad technology disputes practice outside of pure IP enforcement. Anytime something weird or unusual comes in they tend to send it to us! Anything related to media or technology that is a bit peculiar will tend to end up with us, which keeps things interesting.

How does your scientific background assist you in your practice?

The first and most obvious way is that I’ve done cases where it’s been directly relevant. On a pharma patent case I understand the nature of the technology and the terminology because it’s close to what I studied at uni. More generally, I’m accustomed to scientific principles and the particular way that scientists work and think. We often work with expert witnesses who are experienced academics or industry experts, and they talk in a certain way, so the scientific background helps to engage with those individuals. Thirdly, as a scientist you are taught to have a focus on detail and evidence-based thinking. That analytical background can certainly help as a lawyer.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

It’s obviously great when you get a victory for a client. But I think my favourite part of the job is working as part of a team. When you put a team together on a challenging case, and they work well on a day-to-day basis, that’s probably my favourite part of the job.

What do you see as the most important or interesting trends within the industries you cover?

There are a couple of broad trends developing. If we look at IP enforcement, clients’ budgets are getting squeezed all the time, so there’s pressure on what IP owners are prepared to spend on enforcement programmes. Now clients want a much more intelligent and cost-effective strategy at the outset.

Also, certain industries which have not traditionally focused on their intellectual assets, financial institutions being one example, are becoming more focused on how to protect those assets. We now see much more interest from the financial institution community on protecting their IP.

Why did you decide to join Norton Rose Fulbright? What are the firm’s key strengths?

At the time I was a partner of a firm headquartered in Gatwick as I had moved out of London to see what life was like outside of the City. I spent a few months there and realised that it wasn’t right for me.

I knew Norton Rose, as it was back in 2008, was a big corporate commercial and banking firm, and a very long-standing name in the market, but I didn’t really know them as an IP firm. They were looking to build an IP litigation practice from among what was at the time a very good transactional, non-contentious IP and Technology practice. I looked at it and thought “this is the most unbelievable opportunity for me. I also liked it from a cultural perspective; the people I met were the sort of people I wanted to work with.

What would you say has been the highlight moment of your legal career to date?

The last minute of the first trial I had ran as a partner, which began at my previous firm. I’d done a lot of patent litigation as an associate and a senior associate, but always with a partner ultimately being responsible. This was the first big piece of patent litigation I had as the person in charge. I brought it across with me when I joined Norton Rose Fulbright and we ran it here for the second six months through to trial. The first trial is challenging, so that sense of achievement walking out of trial having taken my first case as the supervising partner was really profound.

What are your interests outside of the office?

I’m doing a bit of cycling now, which is fun, and I also recently ran a marathon – it was my 45th birthday two weeks ago so I think a mid-life crisis is looming! Other than that, I have three teenage daughters, so I have to run around after them at the weekend (sports, Duke of Edinburgh hikes, parties, the usual sort of thing), but every now and again I get to the pub, the cinema or to Selhurst Park to watch Crystal Palace.

What advice would you offer to professionals in other sectors who may be considering a career in law?

It’s a great profession to get into if you’re serious about it but first get informed as to what it’s all about. Get some work experience so you can see what it’s like and make a more informed decision on whether it’s a career for you. Talk with people in the industry who you know, go and sit with a barrister for a week, and with a solicitor, and just get as strong an idea as possible of what the profession is all about.

When applying to firms, focus on two things. Firstly, express yourself very convincingly to recruiters about why you are changing your career. There are good reasons why some people may make that change, and firms are looking for people who are keen to re-qualify, but employers will want to explore that in some detail. Make sure you’ve done your homework, express your reasoning and enunciate it well. Secondly, think about what skills or experiences you possess which would be valuable to a career in law. If you can communicate that in the process you will do well.

Having worked with trainee recruits of late, what would you say are the main strengths that they possess?

I’m always impressed by the intellectual calibre of the recruits coming through, which seems to get stronger year on year.

Also, I notice that our new recruits, and the students I meet with when I go to campuses, are focused on their future careers at a very early stage. They come with a real hunger to work hard.

Finally, what advice would you offer to prospective trainee recruits?

The most important thing in many respects is to concentrate at uni and get a really good degree, as that’s the starting position. You need to think about what you may want to do, look for opportunities for work experience, apply for vacation schemes and get a good spread of experience.

When it comes to the application process, particularly at bigger commercial firms, you need to come across at the application stage and interview as a commercially-minded individual. As well as being an excellent lawyer, you need to understand the nature of our clients’ businesses and have a real interest in that.

Finally, we have a diverse workforce. We’re looking for people from different backgrounds and with different ideas. We’re not looking for a ‘type’ and we want people with personalities who can be themselves at work.

This article first appeared on the website of Lex 100, Legal Business’s sister publication.