They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 – Z.W. Julius Chen of Akin Gump

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
One of my proudest professional moments came when Eric Friedman—a former commercial airline pilot who was forced to stop flying after developing insulin-treated diabetes mellitus (ITDM)—told me he was “headed to the line” again. Eric and the American Diabetes Association entrusted me with the responsibility of challenging the FAA’s half-century-old, medically outdated ban on ITDM pilots flying commercially. Through two D.C. Circuit arguments for Eric and a mandamus petition for another former pilot, Mitchell Mitchell, we methodically chipped away at the ban until the FAA finally opened the skies to ITDM pilots.

For six years, I also quarterbacked roughly two dozen Federal Circuit appeals in which a competitor challenged the invalidation of patents underlying a $40-million-dollar-plus infringement verdict against my client. Earlier this year, the successful brief in opposition I filed in the Supreme Court brought all of the disputes between the parties to a close.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
I had the privilege of spending my first year as an attorney clerking for Judge T.S. Ellis III on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Judge Ellis taught me innumerable lessons, but one in particular stands out: Don’t lose the legal forest for the trees.

It was in Judge Ellis’s chambers, where legal analysis had real-world consequences, that I came to appreciate the value in taking a step back from the law and asking (as Judge Ellis regularly did) whether my gut told me I’d arrived at an appropriate answer. Forgetting to do so is understandable—especially for young lawyers. After all, much of law school is spent grappling with the finer details of legal doctrine. Moreover, marshaling favorable and controlling precedent is an effective litigation strategy that typically carries the day.

But not losing sight of the bigger picture has served me well as an advocate. A critical step in any appeal is to understand the broader themes and narratives that will frame more granular legal points and give courts confidence that the doctrinal answer is also the just and fair one. Whenever I take that step, I think of Judge Ellis.

How do you define success in your practice?
As a young litigator, it’s easy to measure success purely in terms of wins and losses. No doubt, it’s preferable to rack up victories, and I’ve been fortunate to help clients do so in my fair share of cases. But over time, I’ve realized that success in my practice comes down to client service.

Successful representations require a full appreciation of, and responsiveness to, clients’ strategic goals. That’s especially important when the odds of prevailing are long. In those circumstances, the task is not just to provide the court with a potential pathway (however creative or narrow) to ruling in a client’s favor; a positive outcome might also involve extracting concessions, limiting losses or other solutions beyond litigation.

At bottom, whether dealing with Fortune 500 companies or individuals, I’m always focused on how to put the client’s best foot forward. From there, success in my practice naturally follows.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
In more than a decade of private practice, I’ve worked on hundreds of matters. The experiences that have really stuck with me, though, come from the pro bono realm.

Pro bono representations are often the most uphill, yet have the highest stakes—literally, at times, life and death. Unfortunately, the prospect (and reality) of defeat tends to loom larger than victory. But whatever the result, the ability to give pro bono clients a voice they would otherwise lack brings a different meaning to the word “advocacy.”

When a client does prevail, pride doesn’t begin to describe the sense of accomplishment. The foremost example for me involved a yearslong effort to overturn the ban on pilots with insulin-treated diabetes (ITDM) flying commercially. As with most litigation against government agencies, deferential standards of review gave the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the upper hand. But in three separate trips to the D.C. Circuit, we won small but significant battles that eventually forced FAA to align its policies with medical science. Today, ITDM pilots have an equal right to fly commercially—opening up new, life-changing opportunities in aviation that were previously unavailable to them.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
As an aspiring appellate advocate, I’ve been grateful to learn my craft from Pratik Shah, the head of our practice and one of the best in the business. But the way Pratik combines brilliance with humility has been the true lesson.

For those who write for a living, pride of authorship can come with the territory. What Pratik has taught me, however, is how to be truly open to feedback. There’s rarely a case where incorporating that feedback fails to improve the final product. Learning to do that thoughtfully and graciously—as Pratik does with colleagues and clients—is unquestionably a skill.

Pratik also has a knack for making minimal edits that significantly elevate others’ work. It’s invaluable for younger attorneys to see how their own writing can reach the next level, and Pratik’s adeptness at doing just that is something I’ve strived to emulate as a more senior attorney.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
These days my kids largely control my playlist (which otherwise has never truly moved on from the ‘90s and ‘00s). Right now we’re usually listening to songs by alternative rock band The Score as we drive around to various sports activities. Beyond that, “Life is a Highway” (the Rascal Flatts version) probably best captures my mood this summer.

Z.W. Julius Chen has drafted more than 100 appellate briefs, including dozens in the U.S. Supreme Court, on behalf of clients. He serves as a barrister in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court and as a regular participant in moot courts held by Georgetown Law’s Supreme Court Institute. He is the hiring partner for Akin Gump’s D.C. office and a member of its Diversity & Inclusion Council.