A lot has changed since lawyer Peter Dernbach first came to Taiwan in the mid-90s. Not only is it much easier and safer to get around without a car, but the legal system has also vastly improved, affording greater protection to intellectual property rightsholders and becoming more aligned with international norms and practices.
Meanwhile, Peter has gone through his own personal and professional transformation, working his way up from Associate at Winkler Partners’ predecessor, Qi Lin International Law Offices, to his current role as the firm’s Coordinating Partner. In recent years, he naturalized as a Taiwanese citizen and is frequently featured in local print and online media for his work with the firm. A long-time active AmCham member, Peter currently serves as co-chair of the Intellectual Property and Licensing Committee.
Peter sat down with TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier in April to discuss his decision to come to Taiwan, how he chose law as a permanent career, and what distinguishes Winkler Partners from most other law firms. An abridged version of their conversation follows.
When did you first come to Taiwan? What was your impression of the island at that time?
I first came to Taiwan in 1995 to study Chinese in what was then known as the Inter-University Program (IUP), now known as the International Chinese Language Program (ICLP) at National Taiwan University.
My first impression of Taiwan was that it was amazing, but I did feel at that time that public transportation was very challenging. There was no MRT, and there were no electronic displays at bus stops showing you when the next bus would come. All the signs were in Chinese, with little to no information in English. Early on, I bought a bicycle and began cycling around town, despite it being quite dangerous to ride on city streets.
Fortunately, things have really improved over the years I’ve lived here. We now have a comprehensive MRT system, bus routes on all of the major thoroughfares, smartphone apps that tell you when the next bus will arrive, and bike lanes on many city streets.
How did you come to be interested in pursuing a career in law? What impact did your time in Taiwan have on that decision?
My interest in a legal career started during my undergraduate studies at George Washington University. My bachelor’s degree was in international affairs, and I observed that although many of the challenges that humans face are global in nature, the legal system of each country is different. I decided I would go to law school and focus on public international law to see how countries and organizations can work across borders on some of those global issues.
The connection to Taiwan was established when I traveled here that first time in 1995. I had decided to take a gap year between my second and third years of law school but had no idea how these two unrelated interests would eventually come together. My thinking was that, as an American lawyer that was going to be admitted in an American jurisdiction, I might occasionally have some Chinese-speaking clients. Other than that, I didn’t really know how I would use my newly acquired language skills. So, I began reaching out to all the American lawyers in Taiwan at that time, one of whom was Robin Winkler, the founder of our firm. He showed me that there is actually a lot that a lawyer licensed in the U.S. can do working overseas.
How would you characterize Taiwan’s current IP regime? What are some of the notable changes in that regime that you’ve witnessed since beginning your law career here?
I am really fortunate that my area of practice is intellectual property rights and that I was in Taiwan while the government was really focusing on improving this area of its legal system. Having robust IP protection is essential to strengthening Taiwan’s international competitiveness and reputation, and it is equally important for all of the entrepreneurs and businesses operating here.
In the time that I have been here, all the major IP laws, including the Patent Act, Trademark Act, Copyright Act, and Trade Secrets Act, have been revised multiple times. I would say the biggest impact was made with the establishment in 2008 of an IP Court, which showed that the government recognized the unique challenges of deciding IP cases and the benefit of having a specialized court to handle them. It has resulted in a more consistent interpretation of the laws and increased predictability in how IP cases are adjudicated.
What are some of the most pressing challenges in terms of improving IP protection in Taiwan?
Some of the challenges that remain today are particularly difficult to resolve because the world is increasingly flat and increasingly digital. For example, Taiwan has very strong copyright protection, but most of the pirated content available to Taiwanese internet users is hosted overseas. It can therefore be quite challenging to take effective enforcement action against the infringing actors.
Some of these issues are not specific to Taiwan; they affect countries around the world. That’s just the nature of IP. Rights owners are constantly innovating, consumer behavior is constantly changing, and the people who seek to illegally take advantage of those trends for commercial gain will continue to innovate as well.
How would you describe your approach to management? How have you developed and honed your management style over time?
The leadership approach that I and the other partners take at the firm is to coordinate rather than manage. We think that each of our colleagues – whether they are a lawyer, an associate, a secretary, or a member of the finance department – are all professionals and what they need are the right environment and the right support. Providing them with these things empowers them to use their skills and abilities to help us achieve our desired goals.
Law firms tend to be more hierarchical in nature. However, we realize the best ideas may come from anywhere. We want to be as inclusive and to get as much input from as many of our colleagues as possible so that our team can learn quickly and do the best job it can. With this philosophy, we are not only learning as individual professionals, but we are also learning as a team. I think that in the end, this will be better for us and better for our clients.
Did you have any mentors in the early stages of your career? How did their guidance shape you as a professional?
I’ve been fortunate to have a number of mentors throughout my career. The one I would like to highlight, though, is Robin Winkler. One of the things that I think had the biggest impact on me and on everyone at the firm is that Robin believed in the need to articulate your vision. Robin had a vision of the type of firm that he wanted to be a part of – that he wanted to create together with other colleagues – and he put that down into writing upon the founding of Winkler Partners.
The idea is that if we put our vision out there, we can get immediate feedback, and colleagues are able to engage with us about whether or not it is something they really believe in and want to achieve.
It is also very effective for recruiting because we can share that document with potential colleagues to gauge their interest in being a part of our team and what we do here. When you join a firm, you are really contributing your skills, your talent, your life, your energy, and the time that you aren’t spending in other areas.
What advice would you give to young foreign professionals hoping to come work in Taiwan?
I would suggest that they just get here and start exploring. One of the great things about living in Taiwan is the incredible diversity here, but to see and experience it, you need to get out and find out where you can really create your own space, your own home, your own place to thrive. Once you’ve done that initial legwork, you can really focus on deepening your roots here.
Winkler Partners promotes the concept of “work-life integration.” What does this mean and how is it applied at the law firm?
We believe that work is a really crucial part of our lives, but it should be integrated in a way that is supportive of the life that we want to lead. We are fortunate to be working in a professional services firm, meaning that everything we do draws on our individual skills and abilities and interests. I think that this, in it of itself, is inherently rewarding for most of us. But I also think that at the end of the day, we want work to be something that is meaningful for us and imbues us with the sense that we have made a positive contribution.
At Winkler Partners, we are proud to provide ways for colleagues to incorporate different aspects of their lives into their work. One of the longest-running and most important benefits we provide is on-site childcare, something that is relatively uncommon at law firms. We appreciate that our colleagues sometimes want to get married and start families, and providing that space where parents can bring their kids allows them to focus on their work, free from worry.
These kinds of things really do make us healthier and happier as people, which in turn improves the quality of the legal services we provide – a true win-win situation.