Mohammed Albabtain is a Juris Doctor at University of Richmond School of Law. His career journey is one of a kind as he shifted from studying and working as a Mechanical Engineer to Law. Here’s the story of Saudi Juris Doctor and attorney, Mohammed Albabtain.
1. Tell us a little about yourself, who is Mohammed?
I'm Mohammed Albabtain, I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but grew up in different places both in Saudi and the Arab world due to my father's work. After highschool, I received a scholarship from a company to study engineering in the US. After a year learning english at the University of Pennsylvania, I got admitted to Purdue University, which is where Neil Armstrong graduated from. I might not get a chance to walk on the moon like he did, but I wanted to have whatever engineering education he had! During my first year, getting electrocuted multiple times in the electrical engineering lab and falling in love with mechanical engineering classes were motivating factors to switch my major to mechanical engineering. Four years later, I graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree and a minor in Organizational Leadership and Supervision.
2. What made you shift your career path from Engineering to Law?
The reason why I wanted to be an engineer in the first place was to make a difference. To build and solve problems. I was very inspired by the early patch of engineers in Saudi Arabia, who most of them grew up in tents before the oil boom in the region. Yet, they managed to jump all obstacles to get educated and build some of the biggest industries in the world right where they grew up. I wanted to be part of that story. After graduating, I went home, where I was assigned as a maintenance engineer in Al Jubail, an industrial city built by those who inspired me on the eastern coast to serve the petrochemical industry, which is now one of the biggest hubs for the petrochemical industry in the world. I was assigned to work for a japanese joint venture, in one of the oldest chemical complexes in the region. For a fresh engineer, it's heaven. You encounter old and new technologies, you get the opportunity to learn and interact with expertise from around the world. I was happy to start living my dream. The job was very challenging, but rewarding, both financially and professionally. It required a tremendous amount of hard work and stress management skills. I had to work alongside my colleagues in an extremely hazardous environment where you encounter carcinogen gas leaks and fires that you are required to fix under time pressure. Such grave responsibility to the livelihood of my colleagues and the environment, taught me so much that a normal office job couldn't do so. After a few months, while still working as an engineer, I was the youngest delegated manager in the company, I had to manage two plants, and later increased to four. Although I loved the challenge, I did not feel I was making a big difference. My career trajectory started to slowly become clear, in 10 years time, most likely I will end up in a high leadership position at that company. It simply wasn't fulfilling enough for me, as I wanted to make a bigger difference. Coupled with personal reasons of wanting to be closer to my family, I decided to seek other opportunities. That's when the opportunity to become a lawyer presented itself.
3. How did the shift to Law happen?
I reached out to my network of people that I became close and remained in contact with over the years. I have heard that the company was looking for engineers to fill the gap of hiring intellectual property (IP) lawyers. The company and the region was and still is, in desperate need of local talent in the legal field. Saudi Arabia's 2030 vision included a project to boost innovation, and building IP foundation was essential to meet the goals of that project. The challenge with developing IP attorneys, specifically patent attorneys, is that candidates need to have a technical background. To me that presented an opportunity where I could be at the forefront of building something new, and truly make a difference. I just needed to jump the obstacles and find my way to becoming a patent attorney. I reached out to the IP department in the company, and after many interviews, I was offered the position of an IP analyst. My role was to help patent attorneys by giving a technical perspective of any idea or invention the company's scientists came up with. The end goal is to determine whether the idea is worth the legal protection. In every aspect, going from a manager to an analyst looked and felt like a demotion, it was a risky step, and I had to swallow my pride and take some of the most mundane tasks to prove my worth and my value to the team, but I just wanted to have a step at the door. I knew I could build my way up and I was willing to do anything to prove it if I was given the chance, even if it meant doing tasks that I knew I was overqualified for. Considering the lack of local talent in the region, the patent attorneys I worked with were all expats, yet they were extremely supportive and generous with their knowledge and expertise, and I think it is important to recognize that diversity in the workplace is a reflection of success and maturity of the working environment. A concept, our region still struggles with. Building local talent should not be at the expense of those who can share their experience. After a year, I was doing well, and it just happened that the company developed the Juris Doctor of Law program (JD) and I was the first candidate to be nominated into the program. The program is designed to send high potential engineers to study IP law in the US. The qualifications for the candidacy included performance evaluations, passing the law school entrance exam (LSAT) and getting accepted in a top tier law school. I had to pass all these obstacles while at work. Fast forward to now, I am currently in my last year studying my Juris Doctor degree at the University of Richmond School of Law. The opportunities to make a difference in the IP field are endless, and I can't wait to go back!
4. What was it like leaving behind a stable career, in which you were growing, to start in a completely new field? Did you have any fears and/or challenges along the way?
It was terrifying, and everyone advised me against it. Especially that I was doing so well and fairly comfortable. I just knew if I wanted to make a change, it has to be now, otherwise, I would get too comfortable that I would not be able to take on more challenges. I took the jump. At the beginning, it was very costly, both financially and professionally, but the skills and the connections I gained over the years helped in giving a better perspective of potential opportunities and challenges. The recipe is simple, swallow your ego, and look at the end goal at hand. Most importantly, if you take the jump, go all in!
5. Do you think your background in Engineering helped your legal career?
Definitely. As I mentioned earlier, to be a patent attorney, you are required to have a technical background. I wouldn't be given the opportunity if I wasn't an engineer. Additionally, having worked in a high stress working environment as an engineer gave me an edge in performing well in the new field with a better perspective of the challenges ahead. Law school is supposed to be very difficult, but because I've gone through very challenging moments in my career, sometimes even life threatening, all the other challenges simply become easier. I think the perspective I developed working as an engineer helps in that respect. I had the opportunity to intern in one of the big law firms in the nation during the summer of 2019. The workload and the expectations were extremely high, as I was expecting it to be. Yet, the perspective I gained from working as an engineer helped me navigate this new challenge in my career. It gave me an edge, as I was able to project to my superiors how I can handle myself in a high stress situation and ultimately managed to secure the offer to work for the law firm again this upcoming summer. All because of my background as an engineer.
6. Lastly, what advice would you give to someone looking to shift their careers and start something new?
Be smart, not every risk is worth taking. Make sure every step is calculated. You know your strengths and weaknesses more than anyone. Most importantly, opportunities will not come to you, you have to chase after them. The blueprint is simple, the execution is what weeds out most people. The blueprint goes like this: 1- Research if the new field is best fit for you. Factors to consider include but not limited to: Age: The sooner you switch the better. You have less responsibility and more freedom and agility to learn and adapt to a new skill. Responsibilities: Kids, family and financials. Always have a backup plan if things do not work. Strengths and Weaknesses: Be honest with yourself. It is true that every skill can be learned, but not every skill can be mastered. You might have a head start in programming or management skills, take those into consideration when you move into a new field. You can't decide to be an NBA player when you are 5'7 ft tall, or a performer when you don't have a great voice. Being realistic is key. Passion is not everything: As an example, I'm passionate about sports, F1, rally racing, and UFC. I don't have the talent to pursue any of those professionally. that would be a career suicide. By the same token, I have zero passion for food. I would probably regret every day of my life if I was a chef. The key is balance, find something you care about in which you have the skills to do and the ability to master those skills. 2- Don't be afraid: If what is needed is a step at the door, TAKE IT! If it means reduced pay and status, TAKE IT! Money should never be a driver, it will come in time. 3- GO ALL IN: You already took the jump, you might as well make it worthwhile. Give it everything you got like there is nothing to lose. Don't question things, make it clear to your boss and your colleagues that you are there because you are pursuing your dream. 4- No matter what happens, you will learn a new skill and get experience. Don't get heartbroken if it doesn't workout. You are now more valuable as a person to your community and to your next boss!