In-House Scientists Offer Expertise for Environmental and Regulatory Law Matters

November 12, 2007

The strategies for law firm expansion range from a slow-and-steady course of action to a hare-paced approach, but one Washington firm has relied on a scientific formula of sorts to guide its plan.

As Keller and Heckman has grown over the years from a one-shop operation in Washington to a 62-attorney law firm with additional offices in San Francisco, Brussels and Shanghai, China, it has enhanced that growth with a cadre of in-house scientists who assist its attorneys in regulatory law, litigation and business transactions.

For every three attorneys, the firm has a scientist on staff to help with technical complexities.

The in-house arrangement is unusual, but one that other law firms may follow as legal work in patent law, biotechnology and environmental law increases.

"The increasing interaction between science and law is palpable," said Shari Seidman Diamond, professor at Northwestern University School of Law and co-chairwoman of the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists.

Traditionally, law firms have used scientists on a consulting basis most often in the area of patent law, she said, but she expects to see more arrangements like the one at Keller and Heckman to help firms in other practice areas.

The Washington-based law firm has a heavy concentration in food and drug matters, occupational safety issues and environmental law. Keller and Heckman partner Joan Sylvain Baughan, whose practice focuses on food contact and packaging matters, said that having 27 scientists on staff is much more efficient than relying on a consulting arrangement.

"We deal with the scientists on a day-to-day basis," she said. "It's a lot easier than having to call somebody across town."

Under one roof

Most of its scientific support staff members have master's degrees in fields such as organic chemistry, analytical chemistry and molecular biology. A few of them have doctorate degrees in science or bachelor's degrees. Many of the scientists are former government employees, Baughan said.

Washington-based Van Ness Feldman also handles regulatory and environmental work. Although it only has a few in-house scientific or engineering advisers, partner Stephen Fotis recognizes the benefits of having such support under one roof.

"The value added is enormous," he said.

Part of the benefit, he said, is the ability to allow clients' scientists to speak with a firm staffer when the situation gets particularly technology-laden, he said. "It takes the lawyer out of the equation. We can get more efficient results."

At Keller and Heckman, 22 scientists and 53 attorneys work in its Washington office.

Its Brussels location has five lawyers and three scientists, and its San Francisco location, two lawyers and one scientist. Shanghai has two lawyers and one scientist.

Baughan said that with the amount of science- and technology-related work the firm performs, it is more cost efficient to have in-house support than to hire consultants.

"It's a tried and true process for us," she said.

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