fivehundred magazine > Hall of fame: Robert W Zelnick > Robert W Zelnick

Robert W Zelnick

Robert W Zelnick talks about his successful work at McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

What has been your greatest achievement, in a professional and personal capability?

I was first-chair trial counsel for a major boat manufacturer, which was sued under a then-new federal law that protected ornamental boat designs. This was the first federal court case to consider the new law, and the case included additional trade dress and related claims. After a two-week trial, my client was completely vindicated, and as the successful defendant was also awarded its attorneys’ fees. The plaintiff appealed, and I briefed and argued the appeal, after which my client’s trial court victory was affirmed and my client was awarded its fees on appeal.

On a more personal level, I have served as a pro bono lawyer for the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. It has been extremely gratifying to represent adoptive parents in the adoption proceedings, and to follow the progress of some of those children over time. One child in particular overcame substantial physical complications and setbacks to thrive under her adoptive parent’s care.

What do you do differently from your peers in the industry?

Clients often remark that I combine tenacity with practicality. I am a zealous advocate for my clients, but I also believe in the expression that one often attracts more flies with honey than with vinegar. In formulating advice, I put myself in the shoes of my opponent and really “play out” the anticipated next steps to see where a matter is likely to lead. Also, I never forget that judges and juries are human beings, with an innate sense of justice and fairness, and so the “big picture” is important to my advocacy and decision-making. And finally, after decades of practice, I understand the role of legal advice in a client’s decision-making process, and I can distill advice on complicated legal issues into a form that is understandable and useful for the business’s decision-makers.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Paint with a wide brush, and explore lots of things that interest you. You never know where those avenues might lead.

Can you give me a practical example of how you helped a client add value to the business?

This is tough to answer, for confidentiality reasons. In broad terms, I am always on the lookout for co-branding, licensing, joint venture, brand extension and other opportunities to leverage successful trademarks. I am happy to pass along those ideas to my clients, as appropriate, in an effort to help unlock additional potential for a brand.

Within your sector, what do you think will be the biggest challenge for clients over the next 12 months?

When I began my practice more than 20 years ago, I was worried that clients would “run out” of available new trademarks. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened (yet!) More seriously, it is unclear whether leading countries of the world are heading more toward or away from globalization. Whether due to “Brexit,” changing trade agreements or otherwise, there is significant uncertainty about these developments and their effects on multi-national trademark ownership.

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