Now celebrating its 21st Anniversary, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin’s 40 Under Forty recognizes rising stars in the legal community. Past winners come from all practice areas and settings, including the government, private practice, and in-house. The one thing they all share is their commitment to excellence and dedication to the legal profession.
The North Star, one of the oldest and most famous stars of all, is not only one of the brightest stars in the sky, but also a symbol of hope. Travelers have long used the North Star as a constant guide during their journeys, such as navigating the Underground Railroad to freedom in the 1800s. It even inspired the title of Fredrick Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.
Azuka Dike, a partner and registered Patent Attorney at Banner Witcoff, is a shining star in intellectual property (“IP”) law. His ambition, work ethic, and dreams are unparalleled, and have allowed him to join the highest echelons of the legal profession in the ten years he has been practicing law. These qualities were instilled in him by his parents. Originally born in Nigeria, Azuka’s parents immigrated to the United States in order to attend college, and eventually raised Azuka and his three brothers. While all four of the Dike brothers now live on their own and are successful, Azuka remembers everything his parents did to make his and his brothers’ lives better when they were growing up. To repay them, Azuka has passed down those values to his own family and applies the lessons he learned every day in the practice of law.
However, Azuka was not always drawn to the field of IP law. When he attended Washington University in St. Louis (“WashU”), the economy had recently recovered from the dot-com bubble burst. This led Azuka to study both Finance and Computer Science. At the time, he decided to focus on a career in Finance, and obtained internships in investment banking and private equity. However, these internships ultimately sparked his curiosity in both the legal profession and IP law. Previously, Azuka thought he needed a Political Science or a Journalism degree in order to go to law school. However, colleagues told him during his internships that his Engineering background was actually beneficial in the legal field. Another internship, this time in engineering at Lockheed Martin, confirmed his decision to go to law school and become an IP attorney.
But Azuka did not go to law school right away. After graduating from WashU, he worked in Anheuser Busch’s contemporary marketing department. There, he not only worked with third party customers, vendors, and distributors, but also executives, which he thought was an incredible opportunity. This work experience was crucial for Azuka’s legal career, because it allowed him to see how businesses operate in real life. He also learned how businesses function, how to communicate with clients, how to work in large teams, and how to best understand a particular business’ goals. It allowed him to stand out from his peers, since many attorneys do not receive business training. But it is this business perspective, combined with a solid legal analysis, that allows attorneys to separate themselves from the pack. Azuka would continue to develop his business knowledge at Anheuser Busch until his matriculation into Northwestern University’s law school.
In law school, Azuka had an early opportunity to begin working in IP law. During his 1L summer, Azuka was a Summer Associate at Banner Witcoff (“Banner”), a highly-renowned IP boutique firm with offices in Chicago; Washington, DC; Boston; and Portland. The firm’s local and national reputation, and the opportunity it provided to begin working in his preferred practice area, immediately drew Azuka to Banner. Azuka’s intuition was soon proven right, and he immediately felt at home at Banner. Since he began working there nearly thirteen years ago, the firm’s environment and culture has not changed. This is due to the firm’s surgical precision when making any hiring decision at any level, whether it be interns, legal assistants, or even partners.
During his 2L summer, Azuka split his summer by working at both Banner and a large, general practice firm. Splitting summers often causes law students to face a classic dilemma: whether to stay at a boutique firm, or to start his career at a larger general practice firm. But Azuka knew right away what his choice would be. Banner was the only place for him, due to the people and its sole focus in IP law. Because the teams at Banner are leanly staffed, junior attorneys are able to receive hands-on training and substantive experience with clients right away.
In fact, Azuka’s clients helped him grow the most. In particular, Nike recognized his potential right away and allowed him to work at their headquarters through a secondment. Secondments are unique opportunities to build close relationships with clients and allow attorneys to learn how their clients’ businesses operate. The firm agreed, and thought it was a good chance for Azuka to show his skills. The secondment only benefited Azuka’s legal career. It first enhanced and refined his knowledge about businesses that he acquired before law school. He also became intimately familiar with Nike’s mission and processes, which added a layer of trust and depth to his legal advice after he returned to Banner.
While Azuka developed the skills to become a great attorney, Congress passed the America Invents Act (“AIA”), which dramatically changed the practice of patent law. For example, the AIA created new procedures to challenge issued patents’ validity at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”). These PTAB proceedings allow petitioners, or challengers, to potentially render a patent invalid by arguing that the patent never should have been granted at all. These types of cases can save parties time and money that would otherwise be spent in court and in discovery, because it could render the issue of patent infringement moot. However, it also requires practitioners to think on their feet, because final written decisions are issued within one year of instituting a PTAB trial, which the PTAB can only extend for up to six months for good cause. Azuka realized how useful of a tool PTAB proceedings could be to resolve conflicts, and that not everyone could do this type of work. However, he could, due to his Computer Science background and Patent Bar registration.
However, Azuka would not have the chance to get involved in any PTAB work until one of Banner’s largest clients was engaged in a heated dispute with its main competitor. Azuka took this opportunity and ran with it and had the chance to represent both patent owners and petitioners at the PTAB. He built this practice over several years by treating the practice of law as an apprenticeship. Each petition Azuka filed allowed him to learn something new that he could apply to future cases. He soon became a formidable presence at the PTAB by applying and internalizing all these lessons. As a result, Azuka was named one of the top petitioners at the PTAB in 2017.
That was not the only time Azuka would be recognized for his efforts. One year later, Azuka would achieve three major milestones. First, Azuka learned that he and his wife were going to start a family. Second, Banner elected Azuka into the senior partnership of the firm. Finally, he won the Daily Law Bulletin’s 40 Under Forty Award. Each of these achievements are incredibly significant on their own. But it is incredibly rare for someone to earn all three. This realization gave Azuka a chance to reflect and to finally celebrate his achievements. In the past, he had been hard on himself, and often emphasized the need to learn from mistakes, instead of celebrating victories. However, despite these challenges, Azuka had achieved success. This would soon be validated in 2019, when he won the American Bar Association’s (“ABA”) “On the Rise – Top 40 Young Lawyers” award in 2019. He is grateful to both the Daily Law Bulletin and the ABA for this realization.
However, one part of Azuka’s outlook on life has not changed. He always looks forward and does not rest on his laurels. Azuka hopes to continue growing in the upcoming years and to maintaining his work ethic, since such actions allow him to live a life without regrets.
Despite a busy work schedule, Azuka finds time to give back to his firm and the profession. At Banner, Azuka is the Chairman of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He has chaired this committee for several years, because diversity, equity, and inclusion are incredibly important to both him and the firm. Azuka knows he would not be where he is today without the firm heavily investing in his career and creating a familial environment for him to grow and learn.
Unfortunately, Azuka’s story is rare. According to Bloomberg Law, only 1.7% of all IP attorneys are Black. Azuka was disheartened and astounded when he learned this. However, he realized that no other field of law had as many barriers to entry. For example, in order to practice patent law, an individual must graduate with a college science or engineering degree, finish law school, pass the USPTO’s patent bar examination, and join a law firm with an IP practice group. Failing to have even one of these requirements may often permanently bar students from becoming patent attorneys, or even entering the IP field. In order to fix this problem, Azuka identifies Black students who are interested in studying STEM subjects in college, going to law school, and practicing IP law, and to provide them guidance and mentorship. Black mentors are particularly important, since they and the students may have parts of their background in common.
Azuka also made it a point to join external bar associations early in his career. He was particularly drawn to the ABA, because it advocates for change within both IP law and the legal profession as a whole. Over the years, Azuka has worn many hats within the ABA’s IP Division. He has held leadership roles in the Young Lawyers Division and currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the ADR subcommittee. Within the ABA, Azuka is most proud of being the ABA-IPL liaison to the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. While it may seem difficult to stand out in the ABA due to the large membership base, Azuka created good impressions with the organization’s leadership through his diligence and hard work. Working in roles directly related to Azuka’s beliefs allowed him to go the extra mile when developing programming for the ABA. That, in turn, has allowed him to make change within the organization at an early age.
While Azuka enjoyed his work in the ABA, he found that there was no bar association that exclusively focused on serving Black men. Existing groups, including the National Bar Association, worked with Black attorneys of all genders and backgrounds, while the Black Women Lawyers’ Association (“BWLA”) helped Black women advance within the profession. Realizing that a gap existed, Azuka developed a network of Black men and joined the Black Men Lawyers’ Association (“BMLA”). He serves as a founding member of the organization’s Board of Directors.
Including members across the United States, BMLA allows Black men to share stories about their practice and give advice. The bar association also helps Black men enter and graduate law school, stay in large firms, and advance within the profession. In order to accomplish this, BMLA commits itself to thorough outreach efforts and provides support at all levels, even for senior associates and partners.
While continuing to build up BMLA from the ground level, Azuka looks to other organizations, like BWLA, as a cornerstone. Some of BWLA’s main areas of focus include community outreach and service. Azuka similarly emphasized community outreach, in order to promote positive change and equity. He created an environment of candor, which allows Black men to ask fellow attorneys questions that they think they cannot ask their peers or supervisors at their law firms. While Azuka thinks there is no such thing as a dumb question, he knows that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to ask certain questions, since law firms have unwritten rules. These rules include how the firm itself operates and what questions can or cannot be asked. Following them is mandatory in order to have a long-term future at the firm. Otherwise, no matter how brilliant an attorney may be, they will be terminated.
Ultimately, BMLA is a space that allows its members to let down their guards and learn both the written and unwritten rules of the practice of law. By serving as a support system for young attorneys, BMLA also reduces the often-significant mental energy it takes to not only handle complex legal work and large dockets, but also to navigate law firms themselves.
Whether providing internship opportunities for law students or teaching them how to handle cold calls, Azuka works to ensure that no one starts at a disadvantage in the legal profession. While some of these actions might seem small, they have a ripple effect, especially during the first year of law school, which often dictates students’ career trajectories. Anything to create a more equitable practice of law, whether by Azuka, his colleagues, or clients, is a step in the right direction.
When asked what he would tell a younger version of himself, Azuka wished he learned more about business development earlier in his career. As a junior associate, there was a general understanding that business development was something for senior associates and partners to worry about. As a result, he focused more on becoming a good attorney and sharpening his legal skills. But business development is not simply a transactional relationship. Azuka learned that attorneys can develop and nurture relationships with law school classmates and colleagues throughout their entire legal career. It can begin by taking actions as simple as sending a LinkedIn request or an email to a colleague. Most attorneys will accept the request and start the relationship. Even if only one to two new relationships are developed a year, that is far better than waiting several years. According to Azuka, planting more seeds will ultimately bear more fruit.
Throughout his storied career, Azuka is most proud of becoming a senior partner at Banner. During law school, he was often told that associates were chewed up and spit out at law firms, and, in some cases, even left the legal profession after a few years. As a result, Azuka did not include making partner in his list of career goals. However, Banner and its clients saw Azuka’s potential and realized how important he was as a team member. This gave Azuka the confidence to continue pursuing his dreams and to become the North Star of IP law along the way. His steadfast work ethic, multiple forms of intelligence, and consistent dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion brighten the pathway to success in the legal profession. Ultimately, they are tools that every attorney should use to find their way and ensure a brighter future for all.
Azuka’s practice focuses on a range of intellectual property matters, with an emphasis on patent litigation, patent prosecution, and opinion counseling. Azuka has significant experience in an expansive range of fields, including computer hardware and software, business methods, design patents, and mechanical devices. He also has a significant post-issuance practice, including IPRs, and has won several appeals before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.
Azuka has substantial experience in performing several large-scale due diligence projects in anticipation of patent litigation, and has represented clients in critical aspects of litigation, including pre-trial discovery and motion practice.
Azuka earned his undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering and Finance from Washington University in St. Louis in 2006. He was awarded his J.D. degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 2010, where he was an editor for the Journal of Technology & Intellectual Property.
Azuka currently serves as chairman of his firm’s Diversity Committee. He also serves as Liaison to the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and as Vice Chair of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee for the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law (ABA-IPL). Azuka was featured in Chicago’s Notable Minority Lawyers in Crain’s Chicago Business in 2018 and has been recognized for his practice in intellectual property litigation in Illinois Super Lawyers’ Rising Stars each year since 2016.
Azuka’s singular goal is to provide high-quality, cost-effective legal services to the firm’s clients while maintaining the highest standards of professionalism and ethics.