A conversation with Morgan Chu ’76

Dealing at sunrise

Helen and Morgan Chu

Credit: Amanda FriedmanHelen and Morgan Chu

Many Harvard Law School alumni have been extraordinarily successful, many have lived unusual lives, and not a few have done both—including Morgan Chu ’76, one of the most successful IP lawyers in the world, who, along with his wife, Helen, is endowing in perpetuity the dean’s chair at HLS. Dean Martha Minow will be honored as the inaugural Morgan and Helen Chu Dean’s Professor. The chair will be held in the future by whoever is the dean of HLS. The bowtie-wearing Chu comes from a remarkably accomplished family: After his parents emigrated from war-torn China, his father and mother attended M.I.T., and his father became a college professor. His brother Steven won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 and until recently served as the U.S. secretary of energy in the Obama administration; his other brother, Gilbert, has a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and M.D. from Harvard Medical School, and is a professor at Stanford School of Medicine.

As for Chu himself, in addition to his J.D. from HLS, he holds three degrees from UCLA—a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D.—as well as an M.S.L. from Yale. In 35-plus years as an IP litigator, he’s achieved more than $3.2 billion in actual payments to his high-tech clients, including a $120 million verdict against Microsoft in 1994 in a patent dispute and $565 million in payments to City of Hope National Medical Center from a 2002 patent case against Genentech. A partner at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles, Chu was named the Outstanding Intellectual Property Lawyer in the United States in the first Chambers Award for Excellence, 2006. Chambers described Chu as “beyond doubt the most gifted trial lawyer in the USA,” who “delivers staggering results for clients.” He’s garnered a long list of other accolades, including being named among the “Top Ten Trial Lawyers” in the nation and one of the “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” by The National Law Journal since the list began in 1994.

But Chu is no grind. His accomplishments also include, at age 15, breaking the record for riding the entire New York City subway system in the shortest time. Bored with high school, he purposely scored zero on a true-false final examination in history, dropped out, traveled for a year and never got a diploma—he had to talk UCLA into admitting him. At HLS, he liked to stay up all night once or twice a week playing poker yet graduated magna cum laude. He can imagine himself as a ski bum, laughs easily, and uses the word “fun” a lot.

Was your family surprised when you dropped out of high school?

Oh, my parents were flabbergasted, I guess would be a nice way to put it.

And were they happy when you went on to earn five degrees?

I don’t know. No one said, “I’m really thrilled you’re getting a lot of degrees.” My wife, Helen, said her parents had concluded, accurately, that I was embarking on the career of a professional student. I enjoyed being in school, at a university. Where else do you have a lot of athletics facilities, interesting speakers, film festivals and great freedom in so many things, including your time? I could have been a professional student the rest of my life.

Why did you and Helen choose to make this significant gift to HLS?

We are forever grateful to HLS for at least two things: First, I received very significant financial support that made it possible for me to attend, and, second, I received an incredible education from the best law school on the planet that has carried me through many years as a practicing lawyer.

Why the dean’s chair?

The leadership of the school, as is true for any organization, is incredibly important. It’s a way for us to give back, and hopefully, in our little way, to make a contribution to the health, welfare and well-being of the school over many years to come.

You really enjoyed your time at HLS.

Some people go to school and don’t seem to have much fun. I had a lot of fun. Classes were fun; there were great faculty; I enjoyed friends. A group of us once or twice a week had all-night poker games, which maybe taught me some negotiating skills that helped me as a lawyer. We used to watch the sun come up as we were still dealing.

Why did you choose to serve on the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review?

That was part of the overall experience, and good fun. I’ve always had a strong belief in the importance of civil rights and civil liberties for all people, and [CRCL] was both a learning experience and very much something from which I achieved a great deal of satisfaction. I believe, by the way, no matter what one’s point of view, that all lawyers, and the profession as a whole, have an obligation to give back, to do pro bono.

Speaking of pro bono, about 15 years ago you handled a high-profile California death-penalty case. You got a full reversal on guilt in the 9th Circuit, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The death-penalty case was a large matter involving a team of people at my firm, all of whom were volunteers: lawyers and legal assistants and staff. We poured our hearts and souls into it over a six-year period. It was very meaningful, and the value of the time—because that’s something law firms keep track of—was in the many millions of dollars. We were doing what we thought was right, and we still think that way. More so than today, the death penalty was very controversial. Far fewer states had outlawed the death penalty at the time, and people really felt passionately about it, in favor of or against it as a matter of public policy. Indeed, some members of our team were in favor of the death penalty but at the same time believed that everyone has a right to representation.

What do you like about IP litigation?

I love what I’m doing. I get to learn something every week, often from some of the smartest, most creative people in the world, whether in biotech, telecommunications or computer software. I get to ask a lot of dumb questions, and they’re very patient. Maybe I’m still a professional student in a way, only this is better, and incredibly I get paid for learning!

What advice would you give a 1L at HLS today?

Instead of a preplanned path on some road to success defined in some artificial way, it’s important to be yourself, have fun, be willing to explore. Stay up late at night playing poker.