Patent Appeals Legend Donald Dunner Passes Away

By Jeffery Leon

October 18, 2019

Donald Dunner

Finnegan partner Donald R. Dunner, a legendary patent law attorney who was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, passed away on October 16. He was 88. 

Over a storied career spanning more than 60 years, Dunner built a reputation as a leading intellectual property expert, working in every realm of the patent law world, including licensing, prosecution, and infringement study. He argued 175 cases before the Federal Circuit, the most of any litigator in the United States, and was a key figure in the court’s formative years, chairing its Advisory Committee for a decade and helping to draft the court’s rules. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1931, Dunner attended the esteemed Stuyvesant High School, and then Purdue University, where his student government experience launched his interest in law. Following graduation and a two-year stint in the Army, Dunner came to Washington, D.C., to attend Georgetown University Law Center in the mid-1950s, studying for his JD at night and working at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as an examiner. 

Dunner clerked for Chief Judge Noble Johnson of the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (which later became the Federal Circuit) for two years. Following clerkship and graduation, Dunner began his legal career in the late 1950s, starting at the firm Strauch, Nolan, and Neale, cutting his teeth on appellate work at Diggins & LeBlanc, and then helping to launch the firm Lane, Aitken & Dunner in 1962. 

“Appellate work is extrabodily challenging and interesting,” Dunner said in a 2009 interview with Washington Lawyer, which profiled him as a “Legend in the Law.” “The issues presented, legal and otherwise, are extremely varied and often of tremendous significance both to the clients and the profession in general.” 

Dunner said the Federal Circuit has been a “prime contributor to bringing patent law into the mainstream and inducing many major law firms into establishing patent groups.” 

Throughout the 1960s Dunner became further involved in patent law issues, working with professor Irving Kayton, who led George Washington University Law School’s patent law program. Under Kayton’s advisement, Dunner wrote a treatise on Court of Customs and Patent Appeals practice after collecting notes on practice issues going back decades. The book would eventually be adopted by the Federal Circuit as a revised text on practice. 

In the ’70s Dunner was called on by President Carter to take part in a commission to evaluate domestic policies related to industrial innovation, and as a result of his work, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was instituted in 1982. Dunner was selected by Howard T. Markey, the new chief judge of the Federal Circuit, as the first chair of the court’s Advisory Committee. He served in that role for 10 years, helping to amend and create new court rules.

Dunner also served as president of the American Patent Law Association and the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law. In 1978 he joined Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP, helping to transform the then 30-attorney firm into an intellectual property law leader, as well as mentoring and advising Finnegan attorneys, including past D.C. Bar president Esther Lim.  

“For six decades, Don Dunner dedicated his legal career to serving clients with exceptional advocacy and mentoring generations of lawyers while fulfilling what he viewed as a professional obligation to serve the bar and the community,” Lim says. “Don’s legacy as a renowned lawyer, a committed leader, and a devoted teacher will be celebrated for years to come. I will miss him dearly as a trusted partner, a fellow bar leader, and a cherished mentor and friend.”  

Dunner is survived by his wife of 62 years, Jenny Sue; his two daughters, Jennifer Dunner Weaver and Lisa Dunner; his three grandchildren, Michael, Courtney and Bradley; a sister, Geraldine Sokolsky; and his cat, Lucy.  

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Animal Legal Defense Fund or the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Donald R. Dunner Fund for Legal Services.