Engineering To Law School

Author: Joseph Fray, BSNE '06 and JD (University of Pennsylvania) 2009
Whenever I tell people that I studied nuclear engineering at Purdue and then went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania, they usually wonder how I made that switch, or what I could possibly do with that combination of degrees.

Joseph FrayAs much as I loved the nuts and bolts of nuclear engineering, I loved the idea of nuclear power more. I knew I could be much more valuable working to guide new nuclear plants through the increasingly complex administrative process than working in a lab, a plant, or a consulting firm. With all the new technology well along in its development, a law degree would allow me to be right on the front line of the rebirth of such an important power source. I’m currently working for a non-profit legal organization that represents disabled veterans, but next fall I will be starting at a large firm with one of the largest nuclear practice groups in the country. At my firm I’ll be working on many legal issues surrounding the building of new plants, the running of older plants, and general issues of radiation control. The combination of my engineering background and my legal education will allow me to truly understand the issues I’ll be dealing with.

Going straight from Purdue’s engineering school to Penn’s law school seemed like it would be an incredible culture shock. But while the people and the work were very different, I found myself well-prepared. The one thing Purdue prepared me for best was functioning on little sleep and doing productive work at around 3 AM. Also, law is usually thought of as being rational and logical without emotion. Using my engineering training to turn a critical, analytical eye on the legal problems in front of me gave me a useful and different perspective than many of my classmates.

Because engineers and lawyers use similar analytical skills to solve problems, the combination of these two degrees is actually fairly common and has lots of practical applications. In fact, having a technical background can give lawyers a leg up over colleagues who lack that kind of training. Patent attorneys, for example, are required to have a foundation in the physical sciences. Others use their understanding of the basics of an industry to work in-house for a technical company, such as a medical device manufacturer or an aviation firm. Virtually every major company has a legal office of some size, so an ability to talk the talk is a crucial advantage.

Law and law school are not for everyone, but engineers are no less suited to legal careers than people with other backgrounds. I’m very happy with my decision and am incredibly excited to start working in my hybrid field of nuclear law.