From GW Law to Big Firm Intellectual Property Practice
Interview with Peter Perkowski, Partner at Winston & Strawn LLP
By Avi Kelin
How does a math major from Rochester, New York end up practicing intellectual property litigation in the Los Angeles offices of an international law firm? To hear the story of Peter Perkowski (GW Law Class of 1998) is to realize that there is no telling what the future holds.
Perkowski is now a partner at Winston & Strawn LLP. He spends most of his time working on patent infringement and licensing disputes involving pharmaceutical and biotechnology patents. In particular, he is currently working on patents for genes that are placed in crop plants to make them resistant to herbicides, as well as for transgenic crops themselves. But as late as his time in college, Perkowski expected to be a math teacher. A semester student-teaching eighth-grade math quickly disabused him of this plan. “Let’s just say I wasn’t suited to teaching eighth graders!” said Perkowski. After graduation, Perkowski worked for a New York State Assembly-member and it was this interest in and exposure to politics that led him to law school. GW, located in the heart of the American political scene, was a natural fit.
Perkowski did not focus on a particular practice area while in school, but, instead, simply tried to get as much out of the law-school experience as possible. He took classes that he found interesting—Natural Resource Law and Legislation—and classes related to litigation—Trial Advocacy, Pre-Trial Advocacy, and Appellate Advocacy. He found a job as a summer associate at a firm in LA that had a strong entertainment law practice. If nothing else, Perkowski’s career path debunks the notion that you need to take particular classes to practice in that field. “It’s a little ironic that I now focus my practice on patent law and I never took a patent law class, even though GWU is well-known for having one of the best IP law programs around,” Perkowski said.
For the first two years out of school, Perkowski continued with the firm where he had worked as a 2L. That firm closed up shop after the dot-com bust of 2000, so Perkowski found a new job with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, spending four years there. With the encouragement of his friends, Perkowski applied for a job at his current firm, Winston & Strawn LLP. “I liked the size of Winston’s LA office (around 65 lawyers compared to Gibson’s 200) and the opportunity to be a part of a team that would continue to grow and expand Winston’s west coast presence,” said Perkowski. “So I applied and was offered a job. Two-and-a-half years later, in 2007, I made partner.”
After spending a few years working on complex business litigation—mostly “for one particular client that had managed to get itself in a heap of trouble”—Perkowski decided to transition back to intellectual property, in part because patent litigation is a key practice area for the firm. “A couple of things went into my decision: (1) I loved intellectual property work, and wanted to return to it after spending the first few years of my career doing it, and (2) being part of the firm’s most important practice area seemed a sure way of becoming ‘indispensible’ to the firm.”
“If you are truly interested in IP litigation generally, or patent litigation specifically, take the classes! If you have a technical background or scientific degree, I would even take the Patent Bar exam (check the PTO website for the requirements). Get involved in the Student Intellectual Property Law Association. Read and keep up on developments in the law. Definitely read (or subscribe to) blogs like Patently-O, Patent Docs, Anticipate This!, or really any of the Top 20 patent blogs (http://www.ipwatchdog.com/
“What I love about IP litigation is that it always seems ‘new’ or ‘cutting edge.’ There are new technologies being developed and new legal issues that arise concerning how to apply old law (such as copyright law and the Internet). With patent law, it’s always fun learning about a new technology or a new drug. With pharma-patent litigation, I get immense satisfaction from helping my clients get their low-cost alternative medications to the market as quickly as possible, to the benefit of patients and society. I think there is a need for patent litigators, particularly those with technical backgrounds or scientific degrees. Lawyers with these credentials are in high demand—although it’s not necessary to have a technical background to practice patent litigation (I’m a walking example, as are several of my colleagues, including several of the top patent trial lawyers in the firm), it does give the holders of such credentials a significant leg up.”