Business & Pleasure

How one lawyer was able to bring his personal interests to work and why it made a huge difference

Ask most lawyers how and why they developed their subject matter expertise, and you’ll likely hear a variation of a common refrain: they landed their first job and stayed in its niche. It’s rare to find legal professionals who incorporate their personal interests into their work.

Lemuel Navarro is an exception to the rule. As assistant general counsel at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, he’s found a role that blends his professional strengths and personal interests. Born in the Philippines, Navarro immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a child. He was interested in technology from the time he was young. “My father worked in the [tech] field, and we had personal computers when most people still didn’t,” he recalls. That fostered Navarro’s passion for computers at a young age, which led to an interest in math and science.

Those interests grew during Navarro’s time in high school and led him to a biology major at Seattle University. Navarro worked in laboratories during and after his undergraduate studies, first for the Benaroya Research Institute and then for Rosetta Inpharmatics. He was considering an advanced degree in the sciences when his then-girlfriend, now wife, suggested law school. “I hadn’t considered law because of my interest in science, but she convinced me that a law degree can be applied in many different areas,” Navarro says. He enrolled at the Seattle University School of Law.

During his second year of law school, Navarro was looking for outside experience when he discovered an internship at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a nonprofit research organization that studies the human brain and makes its tools, resources, and data available online. “I crossed my fingers and applied, because it was exactly the kind of place that I had wanted to find when I entered law school,” he explains.

Navarro got the internship, but he remained uncertain about his future; interviewers made it clear that the organization didn’t hire its interns. Navarro was convinced that, regardless, the experience would help him stand out in what was a difficult job market.

Despite the interviewers’ cautions, the institute was growing and needed to hire new associates. Based on Navarro’s unique background in science and strong legal skills, the organization’s general counsel bucked tradition and hired him as a law clerk in 2010. Six months after he was hired as a law clerk, Navarro was promoted to attorney.

The Allen Institute’s legal team—which consists of a general counsel, three attorneys, a grant specialist, a regulatory compliance specialist, and a group of interns—creates a support department for research scientists. Each attorney is assigned to a specific department, which Navarro says keeps the work varied and interesting. One day he might review an article for publication in Nature, and the next he might negotiate a complex collaborative research agreement with a university. “We want the scientists to focus on their research, not spend their time on other matters that we can handle for them,” he says.

Navarro is involved in several areas of the business, including regulatory compliance, transactional work, employment matters, tax, and licensing. Regardless of the task, his background in science is often relevant. “I can relate to what our scientists are trying to accomplish,” Navarro says. “I can ask the right questions and explain things in terms they can better understand.” For example, when a research scientist needs to obtain a piece of biological material through a contract, Navarro recognizes how his colleague plans to use that material and what the contract needs to allow. He asks the right questions, explains the contract, and makes sure the document matches that scientist’s needs and intent.

As he enters his seventh year with the organization, Navarro has found that his experience in law and the sciences is not only an added value to business, but a way for him to find value in his work. “I know that I’m lucky to be in a business that fits my natural abilities so well,” he says. “When you encounter lulls or tasks that seem mundane, they become a non-factor, because you already like what you do and where you are. If you’re passionate and interested in the subject matter, it helps the work shine.”