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Alumni Newsmakers

The Unexpected Traveler

William Atkins

When Mike Warnecke, JD '67, describes himself as "a Chicago patent lawyer," he's being more than modest. His portfolio of international property rights cases reveals a career that has taken him onto national television in China and into a consulting role in the reform of Japanese and Chinese patent laws.

His experience in China, Japan, and Korea is among the assets that he brings to GW Law School's Intellectual Property Advisory Board, where he is the newest member.

"His ties to Chicago and his decades of experience, especially his valuable insight into Asia, will really help our IP [intellectual property] program," says John Whealan, associate dean for intellectual property law. "I've been to China three times in the last three years and likely will go often. And Chinese students are a significant part of our program. Mike's knowledge of China is going to be a big help."

Mr. Warnecke, a partner at Perkins Coie and co-chair of the firm's patent litigation practice, acknowledges that his international career trajectory involved more serendipity than planning.

"If you'd asked me if I'd ever be involved in international law, I'd have said no. It wasn't even a blip on my screen when I got my law degree," he explains. He viewed his first overseas business trip—to the United Kingdom in 1976 after a client was sued there—as "an aberration."

Even more, Mr. Warnecke was not on track to be a lawyer. He was an undergrad in mechanical engineering at Purdue University when he started thinking ahead to graduate school. An MBA at Harvard topped his wish list—that is, until a representative from the U.S. Patent Office turned up to talk to students about jobs.

"It got me thinking about patent law," he says. "After graduation, I went to Washington and worked at the Patent Office while studying for my law degree at night. GW had night classes and was the best school for IP law, so it was the obvious place for me."

Law degree in hand, he and his wife, Gere, sweethearts from Purdue, then headed back to the Midwest, where he began to build a career in patent law at a Chicago IP boutique firm.

By the early 1980s, international cases involving patents and property rights were on the rise. "There were lawsuits all over the place," Mr. Warnecke says. "And you can only do so much coordination by phone. So I started making trips."

Mitsubishi became a client, so he began traveling to Japan. One of his more challenging cases required him to simultaneously coordinate Mitsubishi's position on property rights and patents in several countries. He has also worked for Sony and smaller Japanese companies. In all, he has traveled to Japan more than 100 times.

At one point, the Japanese government asked for his help in revamping the country's patent laws. Then, in 1990, the Chinese government—interested in joining the World Trade Organization—sought Mr. Warnecke's advice on intellectual property law. That trip ended up with the Chicago lawyer making an appearance on Chinese television, where the country's vice premier interviewed him.

Since then, Mr. Warnecke has made more than 20 work trips to China. (Perkins Coie now has offices in Beijing and Shanghai.) Some of the travel was linked to client Mitsubishi's involvement with the Three Gorges project to build a massive hydroelectric dam across the Yangtze River and lawsuits related to that project.

He has also been instrumental in facilitating Chinese executives' visits to the United States, most notably when he and his wife hosted 50 Chinese auto industry officials at a dinner at their suburban Chicago home. The entourage was part of a bigger joint-venture group organized by the University of Illinois and the city of Chicago.

Gere Warnecke, a gourmet cook, says the meal was the least of it: The protocol of greeting and seating the guests was the biggest challenge. For his part, Mr. Warnecke learned enough Mandarin Chinese to play host.

The couple still wonders what the neighbors thought when two busloads of dinner guests pulled up to the house.

Both of the Warneckes' sons have followed in their father's footsteps, earning law degrees at GW. Andrew, JD '96, works at Bryan Cave in Chicago, and Michael, JD '98, is senior policy counsel at the Entertainment Software Association in D.C. The couple's daughter, Lindsey, is a clinical social worker in Chicago.

Mr. Warnecke says it has been exciting to watch China's evolution in patent enforcement and intellectual property rights, although he describes it as a place where certain change comes slowly.

"I see some movement," he says. "It's not perfect, but they're starting to enforce trademark laws more aggressively."

—Mary Dempsey