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Life sciences law: area of practice

Life sciences lawyers undertake diverse work and have the chance to get involved with complex technology, says Robert from Bird & Bird.
The best aspect is getting involved in interesting areas of technology; the hardest part is keeping up with legislation.

The life sciences sector combines a diverse range of legal practice areas. Most solicitors in this sector therefore tend to specialise in a particular practice area. The main areas of specialisation are contentious work (including patent and product liability litigation), non-contentious work (including commercial and corporate work) and regulatory work (which can include both contentious and non-contentious aspects).

Many lawyers practising in the sector in the UK cover overlapping practice areas, but there are very few who are – or purport to be – experts across the whole range of relevant practice areas.

Interesting technology

Solicitors can work for law firms or may work in-house for large companies, particularly in pharmaceuticals. The type of work depends on the practice area. In litigation you may be working on one major case at a time (perhaps with other matters that are at the pre-litigation or advisory stage running in parallel). However, if you’re mainly working in the non-contentious field, you are more likely to have a number of transactions at different stages, proceeding at the same time. For example, you might be in the process of negotiating a collaboration agreement at the same time as carrying out some due diligence for the purposes of an acquisition.

An example of a typical contentious case is a patent action. These begin with an analysis of the relevant patent(s) and alleged infringement or technical issues relating to their validity. Taking weeks or perhaps months, the process involves discussions with experts in the relevant field. Procedural steps that need to be taken before the trial include preparation and service of witness statements and experts’ reports, and potentially the conduct of experiments to prove points. The trial will then take place approximately a year after commencement of the proceedings, often lasting from three to ten days depending on the complexity of the issues or number of patents in dispute.

Most patent litigation in life sciences is between big pharmaceutical companies. Non-contentious work is more varied and likely to involve work with small companies, venture capital funds or similar types of organisations.

Contentious, non-contentious and regulatory case teams are typically small – three or four people. However, teams for corporate matters may be bigger, particularly if large numbers of documents are to be reviewed in a short period of time for the purposes of a due diligence exercise.

Work is generally office-based, but some tasks require visits or travel – perhaps reviewing documents at the client’s premises, or to meet and discuss issues with a technical team at a R&D facility. Litigation matters typically require days in court.

Longer hours may be necessary occasionally (perhaps working until 10.00 pm or a day at the weekend). The only exception is likely to be if you’re working on a major, time-critical corporate transaction, in which case there might be a more sustained period of long hours, including multiple late nights and weekends.

The best aspect of the work is the regular opportunity to get deeply involved in interesting areas of technology within the industry. The most challenging aspect is keeping up with the range of legislation and regulation applicable to the sector.


The sector is generally resilient in the economic downturn due to the necessity of medicines and treatments. The sector tends not to have the peaks and troughs of other areas.

As a trainee

Trainee can expect to carry out a range of tasks. They may: prepare draft documents such as patent licenses, schedules or analysis notes; take notes at meetings; review and make notes on third party documents; liaise with client contacts and technical personnel; and report to associates and partners on the progression of work.

Types of law practised

  • Contract.
  • Competition.
  • Corporate.
  • Intellectual property, particularly patents.
  • Regulatory.
  • Tort.

Good life sciences solicitors have…

  • Intellectual curiosity.
  • Good communication skills.
  • Commercial awareness.

ROBERT WILLIAMS is a partner in the intellectual property department at BIRD & BIRD LLP. He studied chemistry and law at the University of Exeter in 1990.