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J.D., M.D. give alumnus leg up with startups

March 7, 2013 | Alumni

With a plethora of legal experience in medicine, Dr. Scott Smith’s pursuit of both law and medical degrees has been worth every penny.

“It’s been a pretty crazy career,” said Smith, who works in Silicon Valley as a partner at Dorsey and Whitney, LLP. Most of Smith’s career has focused on patent law for startup companies inventing medical devices. “Partway through medical school I had the idea I should use my J.D.-M.D. combination to do something a little bit different,” he said.

Since making that decision, Smith has worked as in-house counsel for multiple medical device startups — including one acquired by Johnson & Johnson for nearly $8 million — and also for several law firms with medical device patent practices.

After graduating from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in 1994, Smith moved to Tucson, Ariz., with his family and without a law job. After practicing general law for a year at a small firm, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend medical school at the University of Arizona to become a surgeon. During medical school, Smith spent one summer working in a law firm, met the patent lawyers at that firm, and decided to transition back to the practice of law after earning his M.D.

The companies Smith has worked for have designed devices for a variety of surgeries and illnesses, including minimally invasive sinus surgery, pulmonology, spine surgery, laser eye surgery, knee replacements, robotic surgery systems, and cardiology. Most companies – especially startups – focus on one device for one illness and, as they grow, create more devices for that same specialty area.

“I don’t like to add up the number of jobs I’ve had, as the number is greater than I’d like,” Smith said. “But each new job has just been a better opportunity, and I couldn’t pass them up.”

Smith particularly enjoys working with startup companies in Silicon Valley. “(Startups) are just more innovative and inventive,” he said. “They’re trying to solve big problems, and it’s a more exciting type of company.”

The rewards can be great in many ways. Smith pointed out that a smaller startup has the chance for major investments or acquisitions that can make the worth of employees’ stock rise significantly. Working for startups has allowed Smith to have a broader experience in the legal field. He is usually the only legal counsel companies have; so he is approached with more than just patent law questions.

Smith’s accomplishments don’t stop at his desk. He’s an avid runner and marathoner, too.

Smith ran his first 5K race in middle school and continued running long distances through high school and college. He completed his first marathon in Columbus during his time at Moritz.

“I got the ‘bug’ for marathons at that point and ran one to two marathons a year for quite a while,” he said. “Probably the craziest I ran was a 50K ‘ultramarathon’ on trails a couple years ago.”

Balancing work and life can be tough, but the running is what keeps Smith sane.

“I spend too much of my life sitting at a desk, so I have to move around a bit to cancel it out,” he said.

Although Smith has found his niche in the epicenter for startups, his goal while in law school – aside from running marathons – wasn’t always as clearly defined.

“I went to law school not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he said. While he “got into the crazy law student, first-year thing,” he lost a lot of his excitement for law school during the following two years.

“It’s important for law students to invest the energy and time in their passions,” he said. One never knows when classes taken in law school will come into play in the real world. For example, his Contract Law class has helped him as an in-house counsel with startups.

“(Law school) was a worthwhile investment for me because I’m doing what I consider to be a fun part of the legal practice,” he said.

This article was written by T.K. Brady.