The Work

September 4, 2008 7:27 PM

Litigation Battles? A Weil Associate Gets Ready for a Real War

Posted by Brian Baxter


Weil, Gotshal & Manges IP litigation associate Okey Onyejekwe left Wednesday for a 90-day tour of duty in Iraq after his Air Force Reserve unit was called up. It's not your typical leave-of-absence, but he's not complaining.

"Three months is not bad at all compared to the people doing six-, 12-, and 15-month [tours]," Onyejekwe says. "The way they try to maintain it in the Air Force is that all call-ups are voluntary."

Besides being a third-year associate, Onyejekwe is also a flight surgeon, which means he has the training to treat battlefield casualties, manage sick patients in flight, and maintain the physical health of the Air Force's flying personnel. He holds the rank of captain and is to be promoted to major in February 2009.

After graduating from Ohio State University in 2000 with a medical degree, Onyejekwe did his three-year residency at Columbia University.

He was working in the uptown hospital's intensive care unit and about to come off shift the morning of 9/11. When the news broke, all medical personnel were asked to stay. The expectation was that less-seriously wounded patients would be diverted to Columbia from hospitals closer to Ground Zero.

"It was one of those experiences that I'll never forget," says the 33-year-old Onyejekwe. "You either came in with a couple of scratches or you didn't come in at all. It wouldn't do it justice to put into words how devastating that experience was that day."

The feeling of helplessness he felt lingered for the next few months. It was compounded by his disillusionment with being a doctor in the U.S.

"I was working in an underserved population in Washington Heights, New York, where most of our patients were lower-income, Spanish-speaking immigrants," Onyejekwe says. "Every sort of health care disparity you could see, I saw."

So, in January 2002, he walked around the corner from his New York apartment into a recruiter's office and began the process of becoming a U.S. Army reservist. (He switched to the Air Force in 2005).

"I had thought about the military many times in the past," Onyejekwe says. "Both of my parents are Nigerian immigrants--I'm first generation here--so [I recognize] the things that this country has done for me."

Meanwhile, upon finishing his residency, he decided to go to law school, entering Stanford in the fall of 2003. His goal: to advocate for health care and tort reform. But while summering at Weil in 2004 as a 1L, Onyejekwe was exposed to patent litigation. Given his extensive science background, the practice group turned out to be a perfect fit. He accepted Weil's offer at the end of the summer, returned in the summer of 2005 for an obligatory two-week stint, and after graduating in 2006, joined the firm as a first-year associate.

But Onyejekwe was't done with either his medical or military commitments.

In December 2004,  Onyejekwe says he began working at a Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto to get some extra money and help manage the bills. He began to enjoy practicing medicine again. Even after he joined Weil, he continued spending time in the local E.R., in part because it allowed him to keep up with his military obligations. (He had accepted a commission with the Air Force Reserve during his second year in law school.)

"Going back to medicine was one of those things that I stumbled into that in hindsight proved to be a really good idea," he says.

Still, Onyejekwe considers himself a lawyer first--and his superiors appear to agree.

"I've worked with Okey for a couple years and we're obviously quite proud of what he's done," says Edward Reines, an IP litigation partner in Weil's Silicon Valley office. "We supported him on his biweekly emergency night rotations and we'll certainly support him on the battlefield in Iraq."

Onyejekwe has never had any doubt about the firm's backing: "I cannot believe how supportive the firm has been--certainly above what's required by law and what I expected personally." (Weil will continue to pay Onyejekwe his full salary while he is on leave.)

The IP associate, who recently married, will be stationed at Balad Air Base outside of Baghdad. The base, the largest operated by the Air Force in the area and the location of its main hospital, has an emergency room reserved not only by wounded GI's, Onyejekwe says, but also for third-party nationals working at the base and for Iraqis from the area who have recognized the benefit of having a health care facility with a full complement of Western amenities in their midst. Onyejekwe's duties will also include dangerous missions into the field.

"That would be the medical evacuations, where we go out in either fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter and bring back wounded GI's to the ER," he says. "So I'll be rotating between those different areas."

Onyejekwe says a number of Weil partners and associates reassured him about taking the leave when he first learned of the assignment. While Onyejekwe is a junior associate on most cases, he says that in the IP group at Weil that still entails a fair amount of responsibility. So in his last few days prior to leaving the firm he's been busy writing memos to other associates describing his knowledge on certain cases.

Reines, for one, sees Onyejekwe's Iraq experience as a positive for the young lawyer.

"Military service can even help you become a better patent litigator in terms of dealing with adverse circumstances and stress," he says. "They're both team enterprises and in a funny way, I think Okey's experience in Iraq will make him a better patent litigator."

And the firm isn't worried that he won't keep in touch.

Says Reines: "Being Okey, he wants to keep getting updates on the cases and other matters, so even if he's picking bodies up off the ground in Fallujah, he'll be checking his e-mail to make sure the interrogatories get filed on time."

Even in the desert, you can't dodge the billables.

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