Question: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Answer: My family was a family of people who were scientists or engineers. Everyone in the family tended to be good at a lot of things, but especially science and math, and it was natural and easy for me. I would have tended in that direction.
Q: But what happened?
A: I dropped out of high school because I was bored. I was about 15, and I decided that there were certain things about high school that I really enjoyed. I enjoyed friends, I enjoyed participating in sports, but I found school to be boring. I had asked to take a test to get a high school diploma and the teacher said no, the guidance counselor said no, the vice principal said no and the principal said no. They were saying no because I didn't have all the years of English and physical education. I asked people at the school district, wrote a letter to the superintendent of the school district and they said no.
Q: How did your parents react when you dropped out?
A: They weren't happy at all. I decided to leave for a period of time, and I left home and traveled back east. It seems crazy now, but it didn't seem crazy at the time. I eventually came back to California and decided I should go to college.
Q: But you never graduated from high school.
A: UCLA first said no because they had a basic rule, you had to have a high school diploma. I went back to the admissions office several more times, and there was a very nice lady who, I'm not sure why, said she would talk to some other people. One thing led to another, and they finally said OK.
Q: How did you get five degrees?
A: My first major at UCLA was mathematics, and later my major was undecided. I took courses in the sciences, humanities, arts and social sciences. The university wanted to kick me out of school because I had so many units piled up, and I happened to be one course shy of the requirements for a political science degree. The dean told me I had to graduate and so I did with a B.A. in political science. The graduate degrees are interdisciplinary social sciences degrees and the M.S.L. is a master of studies in law.
Q: Why so many?
A: I could be a professional student. I love the university environment. There are always interesting speakers, films and artistic performances and athletic facilities abound.
Q: Are you from Los Angeles?
A: I was born in New York City at Beth Israel hospital. My family was living in Queens and then moved to Garden City, Long Island. I mostly grew up in Garden City.
Q: Tell me about your childhood.
A: I had a lot of odd jobs. I first started a lawn-mowing business when I was very young with a partner. We ended up buying our own power equipment, which was a very big thing because my family only had the kind of lawn mower that you push. But because we were starting a business, and we could be more efficient, we had a power lawn mower. My partner and I worked together one spring and one summer and then he did not want to work so hard anymore so I took over the lawn-mowing business. I bought him out.
Q: How did you end up in Southern California?
A: My father had been teaching at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, he was a chemical engineer. He accepted a job with North American Aviation, a large aerospace company. This was in the mid-'60s and a lot of things were going on at the time, including the space program. He worked on the space program and related things.
Q: Tell me about your wife, Helen.
A: For many years, she was an elementary school teacher for mostly kindergarten and first grade, but now she spends time doing a lot of ballet. She does it just for fun and exercise. Her father was a diplomat. She was born in Hong Kong; she spent a few years there. She lived in Germany or Bangkok and different places when her father was posted there. She went to high school in Hong Kong. She mostly grew up outside the United States.
Q: How did you two meet?
A: We were both students at UCLA, but we hadn't met, it's kind of a big school. Instead, we met in Los Angeles in Chinatown at a community meeting to talk about how to set up English as a second language classes. We met at the meeting, and Helen had a car and I didn't have a car, and I needed a ride home. I asked her for a ride home and she said yes.
Q: Tell me more about your parents.
A: They grew up in China, they were young adults during World War II. My father was one of 11 kids, and only he and two of his sisters made it to the United States. My mother was one of five kids, and she was the only sibling who made it to the United States. My father got his doctorate degree from MIT and my mother started at MIT studying economics.
Q: Have you been to China?
A: For a long time, there was no way to go to China. It was closed to people from the United States, and then China began to open up so Helen and I thought, "Let's go to China." I had graduated from law school and had started working here at Irell & Manella. I had never been outside of the United States.
Q: Was it difficult to travel there?
A: It was in the 1970s, and we were in Hong Kong. I knew someone who knew someone who was a senior executive at an old British trading company that was operating out of Hong Kong. We went to meet with him. Later, he called us and said, "You have to get $10,000 in cash and meet my secretary on a certain street corner in Hong Kong. Then she will take you to an office of a Chinese representative."
Q: What happened when you met the secretary?
A: We were walking down all these small alleys and we come into this little, tiny office with a grey steel desk and this guy who has a Mao jacket on. He said, "So you want to go China?" and asks for the money. We give him the money, and he says, "OK, 5 a.m., Hong Kong main station, track 7; be there on time."
Q: Did you end up in China?
A: The next morning we go down to the train station and we get on this train. There is this very famous bridge that was the border into China and the train can't go there, so you stop and someone who is a Chinese official says, "OK, everyone off, cross the bridge on foot and go to that little house over there." This tiny, little house was standing there by itself and they have a banquet meal set up to welcome people into China. After we ate they took us and we got on a plane and flew to Beijing. That was our first trip to China, and we have been back several times since.
Q: Your brother, Steven, is the U.S. secretary of energy. Where were you when you found out that President Obama appointed him?
A: I was able to go to the official announcement in Chicago, and I got to meet the president-elect and the vice president-elect. Helen and I also went to the Inauguration, and to pre-inaugural balls and events. On Inauguration Day I had my BlackBerry and I was getting e-mails from people saying the Senate voted unanimously to confirm Steven.
Q: Did you go to the swearing-in ceremony?
A: We did. The president and vice president were there, and the president spent time with everyone. I think he spent more time speaking with and shaking Helen's hand more than anyone's.
Q: How did you become an intellectual property lawyer?
A: Just by chance. I had been at Irell & Manella for one year, I was a very young lawyer and I barely knew what I was doing. We had a client that had a patent case and their current counsel was going to be disqualified because of a conflict of interest. The general counsel said to the senior people here, "I'd like Morgan to be in charge of this patent case."
Q: Who was the client?
A: The client was Mattel. I had done work on other matters for Mattel, and my guess is that the general counsel thought I would do a good job on the case. The senior people said, "No, Morgan doesn't know anything about patent law." The case involved the computer chips that were used for the first handheld electronic games.
Q: Did you get to try the case?
A: Yes, one year later the case went to trial and it received some attention because the patents were known in the computer industry and covered basic operations of processors. I remember the evening before the first day of trial, I was speaking with Helen and I said, "I don't know where to stand when I give opening statements because I have never seen a trial. I've seen 'Perry Mason,' but that's not real."
Q: Did you win?
A: We won at trial. And by word of mouth, we got another case and another case and then a lot of cases.
Q: What do you enjoy about being a litigator?
A: I enjoy learning new things every day and meeting exciting, engaging people. I get to learn about what people are doing, and dreaming about and creating in so many disparate fields and make a comfortable living at the same time.
Q: What has been your most challenging case?
A: A lot of cases have been very challenging. But one that was challenging in a number of ways was where we were representing City of Hope against Genentech. We poured our heart into it and had a very lengthy trial. We thought that we did a fabulous job, and the jury was deliberating and deliberating and the days went by and it was finally a hung jury.
Q: So the outcome was pretty disappointing?
A: We were let down because we hadn't achieved our goal, but the great challenge was how do we do better when we thought we did fabulous in the first place. And then we went to a second trial and that ended up being successful. Part of the challenge was not just reconstructing the case, but getting a team of people working well as a team after being so deflated.
Q: What's your typical day like?
A: There isn't a typical day. I tend to get up very early and I always work out. I used to run at least six miles, but my distance has changed a lot over time. Some days, I won't run and instead I will use weights and a stationary bicycle. In the warmer half of the year, I go swimming during lunch since I only live five minutes from the office. One of my great ambitions as a child was to have a swimming pool. I will work out no matter where I am. It's like brushing my teeth in the morning: If I don't do it, I notice it.
Q: And your workday?
A: I'm frequently out of town, but if I'm in the office I have lots of meetings and phone calls.
Q: You are known for wearing a bowties. Why not regular ties?
A: Years ago, when I wore regular ties I got some ketchup on it. And I thought, "This is kind of dumb, you can't clean ties very easily." And not only are they good at catching mustard and ketchup, but they blow in the wind and get in the way. So bowties, at the time, I thought made sense.
COMPANY: Irell & Manella LLP
BORN: 1950; New York
EDUCATION: B.A., M.A., Ph.D., UCLA; M.S.L., Yale; J.D., Harvard
CAREER TURNING POINT: Joining Irell & Manella in 1977
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Parents, wife Helen
PERSONAL: Lives in West Los Angeles with wife; no children
HOBBIES: Running, swimming, playing tennis, traveling
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