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Patricia Werschulz née Patterson as a first year at Chatham, 1968

Patricia Werschulz née Patterson as a first year at Chatham, 1968

 

The PHOENIXES

Law School at 55

After she lost her job of 35 years, Patricia Werschulz could’ve easily retired. Instead, she became a lawyer.

 

 

“I went from an organization where I was the highest ranking person at the site. I had a large staff, three departments, and a large budget. Then I was a first-year law student and I had to check my ego at the door.”

 
 

At age 55, for the first time in her life, Patricia Werschulz ‘72 found herself unemployed. After working at Bristol-Myers Squibb for twenty years and moving up the chain from staff chemist to Director of Product Development, the company decided to sell off Patricia’s division. She was eligible for 80% of her pension, fully vested in her 401k, and had a sizable severance package in tow. The world was her oyster: “I said, F*** it, I’m going to law school.”

Being a lawyer was a dream she’d always kept on the back burner, promising her husband that if she ever lost her job, she’d head straight to law school. So Patricia enrolled as a law student at Rutgers, where she sometimes carpooled with her son, who was completing his masters at the same time. One night, he joined Patricia and her classmates for pizza after class; on the ride home he told her, “You’re just like all the other law students,” her response, “And?” His: “That’s pretty cool.”

Despite many of her classmates and a few of her professors being younger, Patricia had no anxiety about bridging the gaps: “Having worked in a big company, I had to deal with people of all ages from many different countries. People are just people, you don’t need to put them into categories.”

“I left a field that had started to become more gender equal and entered a field that hasn’t.”

When it came time to choose a specialization, Patricia’s undergraduate degree in chemistry was crucial. She wanted to go into patent law, a specialty that requires an additional bar exam and a degree in science or engineering. Because of this added qualification, there are only around 45,000 registered patent attorneys in the United States; only 20% are women. But she is making a name for herself anyway: in 2018, her solo firm was in the Top 40 patent-achieving law firms in the United States.

Patricia’s work as a female patent attorney directly impacts female inventors, who comprise only 12% of inventors in the United States: “I’ve had more than one woman come into my office and say, ‘I met with a male patent attorney and I explained what I was doing and he didn’t get it.’” Many female inventors never run into a female patent attorney like Patricia, and thus, they give up on ideas that someone else might have supported.

“Women in this country aren’t taught to value their ideas sufficiently enough to invest in them.”

Luckily, the women inventors who find Patricia are facing fewer barriers to access. Because of the expensive nature of patents—$10,000-$15,000 over the course of the application process—Patricia works with a program that allows her to provide pro bono work for promising inventors that lack capital, the majority of which are women. “I like to think that when they get this patent, they’ll be able to change something in their life,” says Patricia.

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As for her own go-getter nature, she credits a lot of it to the experience of going to a women’s college: “I’ve always said, if you’re going to stand around and wait for somebody to open a door for you at Chatham, you’re going to wait a long time.” Patricia’s Chatham was engulfed in the political unrest and anxiety of the Nixon administration and Vietnam; she and her classmates protested the Kent State shooting on Fifth Avenue and the Vietnam War in Market Square.  They inscribed the phrase, “Learning in the hands of a woman is like a sword in the hands of a man” underneath the masthead of the Chatham newspaper.

In the years that followed her Chatham graduation, Patricia found that the high-achieving women she befriended were frequently fellow women’s college graduates. “It was no accident that we were in good positions in our careers already,” she says.

After a life and career filled with bona fide phoenix-ing, Patricia has some quick tips for anyone looking to make a major career change: 

1.    “Be sure that’s what you want. If you want it, you can do it.”
2.    “Be smart about your money. If you need to delay something for a year to be in a better situation financially, that’s a good decision.”
3.    “Research what you’re getting into. Ask people in your field how they journeyed there and what it’s like.”
4.    “Focus on the end game.”

 
 
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