merica's best intellectual property lawyer speaks in a gentle, folksy tone. His words are thoughtfully cadenced for the speed of the listener's ear. His responses are fleshed out with analogies, historical footnotes and other aids to full-bodied comprehension. Morgan Chu sounds like a favorite college professor. It's an impression reinforced by his easy grin and the festive bowties he always sports.
It's easy to understand why he's so atuned to the listener. On top of his national preeminence as a patent lawyer, Chu is generally considered one of America's top 10 trial lawyers. His $500 million verdict in a biotech patent suit is one of the two largest of 2002. A lawyer who must regularly persuade juries and judges to put his client on the sunny side of complex trials naturally values being heard clearly and sympathetically.
Not to mince words, Morgan Chu is America's most admired Asian big-firm lawyer. His success is entirely of the blue-chip variety. At 53 he's already a top powerhouse at one of California's most admired and profitable law firms. At a time when most legal behemoths are reeling from the tech slump, Irell & Manella is flush. Chu routinely commands annual draws well into the seven figures. Even lowly first-year associates at Irell start at $150,000 a year. But then it's the kind of firm where a grunt is expected to sweat out at least 2,000 billable hours a year. That takes 11-hour days and at least a day most weekends. But that's what bigfirm success is all about, and among elite law students, Irell tops the list of the most coveted California flybacks.
What makes Chu fascinating as a human being is the long and winding road leading up to his career. In some ways, his tendencies and life philosophy make him the anti-bigfirm lawyer. His educational path would be a horror story to parents with conventional ambitions for their kids. Even most college students would shake their heads at the lack of basic common sense embodied in Chu's academic resume.
But you have to understand that Morgan Chu has never been about the straightforward goalsetting approach to life. In college his only goal was to stay for as long as possible to gorge on the smorgasbord of intellectual delights. He racked up three more degrees before even considering a grownup career -- and that was only because his wife poked fun at his becoming a professional student.
Late one Friday afternoon in August Morgan Chu took time to answer our questions from his office on an upper floor of a Century City tower.
GS: You earned a series of degrees from UCLA, starting with a BA in 71. Then you got a masters in 72 and a PhD in 73. What was your BA in?
MC: There are two answers. The first answer is political science. But the real answer is, I was majoring in being undecided. I actually started as a math major, then not too long after that I decided to be undecided. Then the university started sending me letters after I had enough units to be a junior. The rule was you had to declare a major. I threw away the letters they sent me every three months.
The dean of students calls me in and says, 'You're supposed to have a major and you should have declared it a long time ago. You know the rules?' I said, 'Yeah.' 'Didn't we send you a letter every quarter?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Didn't the letters say you had to declare a major?' I said, 'That's exactly what it said.' 'What did you do with the letters?' I said, 'I threw it out.' He said, 'Why did you do that?' 'I didn't want to declare a major.'
Then the next quarter I got another letters and I threw that out. He said, 'Well I had someone look at the classes you've been taking. You got this hodgepodge of classes, chemistry, physics, math, literature, psychology... We have to kick you out of school when you get a certain number of units, and here's how far away you are away. You need so many chemistry classes, you need three economics classes...' But for political science -- which I thought then was the easiest major on campus -- I think you only needed something like nine political science classes and just by luck I had eight. So he said, 'Pick one of these areas where in a quarter or two you can graduate. You have to do it . If you don't do it, we're just gonna kick you out.'
That's how I ended up being a political science major. I was a political science major for less than one quarter because the quarter had already started.
GS: We've never heard anyone so vague about what they wanted to do.
MC: I did have a goal in not deciding. I enjoyed being a professional student.