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A Young Associate's Story: Navigating the Transition from Law School to Lawyer

Jan 22, 2024
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Allan Carlsen is fresh out of law school and just over a year into practice as a patent litigator at an elite boutique law firm. Unlike our typical episodes, the conversation with Allan focuses on how he found his job and decided on his firm, how school and practice differ, and how he navigates new situations. He talks about his experiences with the on-campus interview process, the Loyola Patent Fair, and the important difference between producing the right work product and producing a perfect work product. Allan is a graduate of Temple University Beasley School of Law.

Transcript

Katya Valasek:

We're joined today by Allan Carlsen, a second year associate at Desmarais, an elite boutique law firm with about 100 lawyers that specializes in patent litigation. Despite not being a huge firm, the starting pay is what's termed “market rate.” That is, new associates in 2024 will make $225,000 before bonus, a figure primarily driven by huge New York law firms. While it's mostly just the largest firms that pay market, some specialty boutiques also compete for new graduates at the market rate.

So you are what many call a K to JD. You went straight to law school immediately after college. Was it always your plan to go to law school?

Allan Carlsen:

I always joke I was one of the weird kids who since high school have probably had the idea of wanting to go to law school. When I was in high school, I did mock trial, really took to it, I really enjoyed it. I told my coaches at the time, I think I want to be a lawyer. What seemed to be par for the course every time you talk to a lawyer and said that, they tried to convince you that you did not indeed want to be a lawyer. And I kept saying, “no, I really think I do. I really think I do.” And so they said, well, law school is going to come after college. So when you go to college, do something that's unrelated to law school. That way, if you change your mind, you have another area that you can pivot to and other job prospects. And then I went through college, still really never changed my mind and went straight to law school after I graduated.

Katya Valasek:

A lot of the people you spoke to as you were going through your education discouraged you from going to law school, but here you are. So why didn't you take that advice?

Allan Carlsen:

I think a lot of times the discouragement wasn't so much because they didn't like being a lawyer. I think a lot of people don't perhaps fully think out what being a lawyer means in the real world. I mean, the easy jokes to go to are, people think they're gonna be like the characters on Suits or some law-adjacent equivalent show. But I had really talked to a lot of lawyers both in high school and in college. I tried my best to go eyes wide open. I didn't have any kind of illusions as to the degree to which I would be in a courtroom. I understood, to the degree that you can, the type of work I'd probably be doing for a while in the beginning portion of my career. And it was things that interested me. And that interest never dulled. And what I tried to take from people who were perhaps giving a word of caution to me. I took that to mean, you know, make sure you try to explore the real-life working experience of being a lawyer as best you can and don't romanticize what being a lawyer would be. Uh, and so, that's why I kind of kept on the path, kept talking to as many people as I could in different stages of their career and ultimately was never persuaded to not continue to pursue the idea of being a lawyer.

Katya Valasek:

So you pursued unrelated to law topics while you were an undergrad. What were some of those things that you explored?

Allan Carlsen:

When I got the advice to do something unrelated to law, I was looking at my report card as a high schooler and I was like, I'm not terrible at math and science. And at the time, what, you're 18 and your parents and your parents' friends, I'm from Delaware, they were like, University of Delaware has a great chemical engineering program, you should go do that. And so again, you're 18 and you're like, they have a way better idea of what's going on. I jumped into chemical engineering for undergrad. But again, always had that idea of wanting to go to law school afterwards.

Katya Valasek:

So is it through that chemical engineering background that IP law or patent law crossed your radar?

Allan Carlsen:

When I was thinking about wanting to be a lawyer, I had never heard of patent law. It wasn't until I was maybe a sophomore in college or junior that a couple things started to happen. I was still having all those conversations with lawyers that I would run into or lawyers that I had still previously known from my interactions in mock trial. And when they would hear that I was doing chemical engineering as my major, they had said, well, you know, there's this area of the law that use both of your disciplines. You can use your undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, use your training and your education that you will get when you go to law school, in an area called patent law. And then I was really fortunate that the University of Delaware had a patent law course, or rather it was an intellectual property law course for engineers, and it was taught by a patent attorney. So I think I took that my junior year of college, it was a semester, and that exposed you to not only patent law, but copyright and trademark and other intellectual property issues.

Katya Valasek:

So you came into law school with all this knowledge, some idea of a space in which you could belong in practice. And then you went through the on-campus interview process or, many people just call it, OCI. Can you tell me a little bit about how that experience went for you?

Allan Carlsen:

You get to law school, you do your first year, and then near the end of the summer after your first year would be when on-campus interviews start. I had anticipated that I was going to go through the on-campus interview process like everyone else does. Because I was from Delaware and I knew that for a host of reasons, Delaware has a lot of both corporate litigation and some patent law litigation as well, I always thought I was gonna go back to Delaware and be a Delaware attorney. And I was really excited about that. But there actually is a patent-specific law fair that is offered through Loyola College. It is basically a forum where, I think when I went it was 200 law firms. The vast majority of them were big law firms and they are only seeking out people to do patent law. And I thought, this is a good opportunity. There's gonna be firms that are at this Loyola patent fair that don't typically come to my law school for on-campus interviews. And so I kind of threw my hat in the ring. I sent out maybe like 50 applications. And then from there, I started to get looks from law firms that I had never even thought about in the New York market and California market and the DC market. And so I kind of chased down the leads to see where it would take me.

Katya Valasek:

You ended up with a lot of opportunities to explore. Is that common?

Allan Carlsen:

It was uncommon in terms of if you had just tried to do interviews through the on-campus interview process. What I will say is everyone that I have ever talked to that is a law student that is doing patent law, I have always told them you have to go and do the Loyola program. And I believe everyone I've talked to who has done that has gotten their job through the Loyola interview process. So, it might be uncommon in terms of looking at your peers in your law school class, but I think if you are interested in doing patent law, you've done some either research or experiential work, and you're still committed to the idea of doing patent law, the Loyola Patent Fair can be really helpful.

Katya Valasek:

Based on your success in the process, I'm gonna go ahead and guess that you had a really strong GPA and you were near the top of your class in law school.

Allan Carlsen:

That is accurate.

Katya Valasek:

I think that's something people need to know that to have opportunities and options like you had, it is important to have as strong a performance in your first-year classes as absolutely possible.

Allan Carlsen:

Yeah, I agree with that. In terms of my experience, that's correct. I was near the top of my class after my first year. I will add one caveat, just that this area of patent law is really looking for people that have a technical background from their undergraduate degree in addition to pursuing law school. Some of those students that I talked to who went through the Loyola Patent Fair, they were not in as strong positions as I was after my first year, and they came from similar school backgrounds. I think for students who might not be at that top, you know, like 1% or 5%, whatever the, you know, the metric is for getting a big law job, Loyola offers a bit more room to get those prestigious jobs if you'd like them.

Katya Valasek:

Grades aren't the only consideration for on-campus interviews. There's a lot of prep that goes in as the person getting interviewed. What was your strategy?

Allan Carlsen:

I think for this on-campus interview process, I had maybe 14 screener interviews to do over two days. It was crazy. It was all from my parents' basement. It was a wild time, COVID. But it wasn't really feasible to do these deep dives per firm, because you just didn't have the time. So I looked at who would be interviewing me. I looked at the firm's mission statement, what they really thought, like encapsulated their motto, if you will. And I basically created like a reference sheet for all of my interviews. But this was my view of how screeners go, is that they already know what your resume says, they already have your GPA, they have your grades. So they already know what you look like on paper and they've decided that they'd like to speak with you. And I think the most important thing to do at the screener stage is just be who you are because what both parties would like to know is that I can get along with them and they can get along with me. And the assumption being on my part, they are probably representative of the firm from which they came. And if I can see myself working with them, I likely can work with many of the people that are at the firm. So that's how I tried to approach it. I tried my hardest to just kind of be myself and see whether or not that attracted firms or not.

Katya Valasek:

You had a really clear vision of where you wanted to fit into the legal market. You had a degree that you enjoyed from undergrad. You were doing really well in law school. Did you have a similar clear vision of the type of firm you were looking to land at? Or was that something you uncovered as you started these screener interviews?

Allan Carlsen:

I definitely did not have a clear vision of the firm that I wanted to land at. I had always thought I'd end up at a Delaware firm. And so that's kind of where my headspace had been at, both throughout the undergraduate process and my early portion in law school. I didn't know if I wanted general practice or boutique. I wasn't quite sure the markets that I wanted to be in, location and otherwise.

I didn't even know whether I wanted to be patent litigation or patent prosecution focused, which as a brief aside, patent litigation would be arguing in court over a dispute of a patent. The patent prosecution side would be more actually writing the patent that ends up going to the government for approval. And so I actually used the screener interviews, as well as the callback interviews. as an opportunity to get information to figure out where I thought I would best fit. And so I leveraged everyone I talked to and if they were at a big law firm that did general practice work, I would ask, okay, what is better about a general practice firm than a boutique firm? What are the trade-offs? Do you see anything beneficial to the other ones? And I kind of used it as a fact-finding mission in and of itself in addition to trying to get a job.

Katya Valasek:

I'm so glad you went into a little bit about what a boutique firm is because I'm not sure that's something everyone is going to know. Was that appealing to you as you started learning more about what a boutique law firm has to offer?

Allan Carlsen:

It was appealing and a bit mystifying because I really didn't know about boutique practices either. A general practice law firm has typically a huge number of attorneys, all practicing under different practice areas. And the nice thing about that is, let's say you're working in a patent space and somehow a contract dispute comes up. Well, you can walk down the hallway to your, you know, contract department, the transactional lawyers, and ask them questions that you have. The boutique practice is typically a much smaller firm. They only do one area of law. That's the only area of law that they deal with, with perhaps some exceptions. And then there's some limitations that come along with that as well. You don't have the giant infrastructure that other general practice firms have. So I was interested because I had never heard about a boutique practice. I was just trying to get information, but there of course is a little apprehension in the sense of, I think when you're a law student, everyone is telling you if you can get a job at a big law firm that does general practice, that's the way to go. But there was something appealing to the idea of a smaller setting that really focuses on one area of work that piqued my interest.

Katya Valasek:

Has your experience differed from friends of yours who maybe are at a general practice firm?

Allan Carlsen:

Yeah, so I have definitely had a different experience than some of my other friends at general practice firms. And I think it's a mixture of not only a boutique, but perhaps some things that are unique to Desmarais LLP in particular. So in terms of just being at a boutique generally, my guess is that one of the things that is really helpful is, because I am only working in one area of law, the kind of knowledge base that I build as I continue to go through my cases and whatnot, is typically able to be reused or tapped into more often than if you are a more generalized associate and then you're getting put on various matters. You might be on such disparate issue areas for the two matters you're on, they don't ever kind of coincide. But I've already found within the year and change that I've been working here, an issue will come up in a case and I'm like, I've already done a good amount of research on that. Let me go back to my files and see what I wrote up and it oftentimes is really helpful. And that's helpful not only in repeating research work, but also issue spotting for potential landmines as you're going through your case matters.

In terms of what is unique to Desmarais that has really helped differentiate my practice from some of my friends from law school is that we do not bill by the hour. It's very par for the course in biglaw to bill your clients by essentially the six-minute increment. And you gotta keep track of all that. We don't do that. We work out fee arrangements with all our clients so I don't track my time. And the reason that differentiates my work life from some of my other friends, is not only because I think it's healthier that you're not always looking at your clock when you're working, but I typically get to do a little more substantive work than they may be able to do sometimes. I consider myself very fortunate to have already taken a deposition for one of our clients in my first year of being an associate. And part of the reason is because it's not so baked into the structure of the firm that X task is only reserved for people that are of Y year because that's what we typically charge for that task.

Katya Valasek:

I wanna rewind the clock a little bit and talk for a second about your transition from law school to practice. So you graduated, you took the bar exam in New York in July of 2022, but then you weren't admitted into practice until January. So what were you doing for those five or six months?

Allan Carlsen:

in September, I started up working at Desmarais and you pretty much start working as you would if you had passed the bar. There's no real differentiation between someone who's waiting to get their bar results versus someone who has been barred. You hit the ground running, you're assigned to a case team or multiple teams, and you start getting to work.

Katya Valasek:

So when did you find out you passed the bar?

Allan Carlsen:

I think we got our results in October. For New York in particular, there's like a whole packet that you need to complete. You have to get letters of rec from your certain professors, from previous law experience that you have. You need your school to send your transcripts from them. So there's a lot of like that logistical nightmare of just trying to get all the pieces together. And then you submit it to the state and then they go through their approval process. I had gotten all my stuff in like within a week of getting my bar results and it still was that the earliest they could admit me was gonna be January. So it's pretty much just a waiting game once you get your bar results.

Katya Valasek:

Regardless of the state, there is this period of time where you are a law school graduate who passed the bar but is not yet sworn in. You said that you hit the ground running when you started in September, but did the work change for you after you were sworn in?

Allan Carlsen:

In terms of the workload, it didn't change, but the moment you are barred, the firm will assumedly take advantage of the fact that you are barred and there are certain tasks that you can now do. I mean, the easy example being, you can take a deposition once you're a barred attorney. You could be the same exact age in lawyer years as I was when I took a deposition. But if you had not gotten your bar paperwork done, or they were still processing it, even if you were willing and able, you wouldn't be able to sit for that deposition. So that would be the way that it the character of work changed. The small way is also, once you're barred, if you're fortunate to be on a team who does this, you can get your name added to the signature block and that was a really exciting thing that happened the first time.

Katya Valasek:

I want to dive into two different points in time in your career. The first is your summer experience with Desmarais. Since you are a K to JD attorney, was there any sort of learning curve that you were struggling with when you started your second summer walking into the firm?

Allan Carlsen:

So in terms of a learning curve, no. In my law school career, I had just taken over as editor-in-chief for my law review. The substance of work is different. But the idea of like fielding a bunch of emails and trying to, manage people and be managed and work as an in-between, for example, between the school and students. I had already started to kind of hone those skills. The learning curve that was present, and this might be more of a product of COVID, you had to kind of get comfortable in who you are in terms of working on a team and speaking up and giving your ideas and kind of reminding yourself that when you're working during the summer, they're not hiring you like as a student, they're hiring you to be a team member on their team to contribute. And so if you have ideas to share them. That's some kind of comfort level that you need to work through – or at least I needed to work through during my summer.

Katya Valasek:

So you get through the summer, you get your job offer, graduate, bar exam, start in September. Did that feel different coming back?

Allan Carlsen:

Yeah, it did. So during my summer we were remote. So now this is the first time that we're meeting everyone in person. And you get assigned to your case team. For the most part, they are ongoing matters. It's not like a complaint has just been filed and you're there on the groundwork, ground level rather. So the first month you're like drinking from a fire hose, you're trying to get completely caught up, you're trying to be helpful. You're trying to see where you're going to fit into a team that has already been operating for a little bit without you. And so there's always like some kind of growing pains. Who are you working with? Who are you working under? And that's kind of like the first couple to few months of working at a firm in my experience was like just getting your bearings as to where you fit in this like larger operation, both in terms of a case team, smaller, but then also as a firm as a whole.

Katya Valasek:

What was the first thing that fell into place for you that felt like, “I know what I'm doing. I have some sense of stability in this process.”

Allan Carlsen:

So the first thing in terms of stability came early because, right when I got assigned to the case team, we had to write a brief in opposition for a motion that was filed. And I was like, legal research, I got this. Like, this is the one thing that you do in law school, I can be helpful here. It was actually after that briefing was complete that I kind of re-entered a learning zone or an awkward area, which was like, okay, there's not a discrete task of legal research. There's kind of more of these either discovery matters to go into or maybe like strategy, litigation strategy, areas to explore. And that's not something so much that you exercise your brain in when you're in law school. And so that was the area where, you're trying to figure out how to make the best use of your time and again, be most helpful to the attorneys that you're on a team with. So I would say like I had a really like core moment of stability right when I got here. And then when that discrete task had completed, you enter more of that downtime where you're then trying to, it's not just using Westlaw to figure out what the law is. It's a little more, you know, strategic thinking.

Katya Valasek:

And you said, “legal research, I got this. I was just a law student.” But did you find that legal research was different in some ways when you were doing it in practice versus doing it for a law school assignment?

Allan Carlsen:

Yeah, definitely. When I was a law student, I remember my first-year legal writing course. I would treat Westlaw like Google. I would put in my key terms and hit enter and read a bunch of cases. I had worked in a judge's chambers between first and second year of law school. And that's when I first got exposed to how knowledgeable people use Westlaw and I was like, “oh my gosh, I am using this completely incorrectly.” So that was my first exposure. And then of course, when you're in the firm setting again, you like really understand how to use your tools to be efficient in the use of your time. But it is, I think, it's not so much that it's completely different than how you could be using it in law school. You just use it so much more in a practical setting that your abilities improve immensely.

Katya Valasek:

And there's real clients too, right? It's not someone working at a widget factory anymore. It's your actual clients. So that I would imagine gives a different feeling to the work you're doing too.

Allan Carlsen:

Exactly. I mean, and thinking about it in terms of a legal writing aspect, the coursework in law school that is, typically you're going to come up with the results that you got from your search string. And you turn into the professor here's the best cases that I think I found. And the professor will say, oh, you got this one, you got this one, but there's actually this other case that's out there that you missed. And then you're like, okay, so four out of five, that's pretty good. So you have some kind of metric of success because someone has what they have defined as a successful search When you're in practice, it's like is this the law? And the answer is yes, and I'm comfortable that is the universe of case law out there for this issue. No one's there to say “oh you're right because I see that you got this case and that's what I was expecting.” Like you're the one that's making the judgment call for like when you've exhausted the possibilities of what's out there.

Katya Valasek:

I know you're pretty new to your job. And in a lot of ways, you're still finding your footing. So I am curious what really struck you as pieces that continue to fall into place that make you a successful attorney in general, but also a successful attorney who is working with a team of more senior attorneys?

Allan Carlsen:

Definitely the first thing I would say is communication. I err on the side of overcommunication. And I'll wait till you tell me, “oh, you don't need to let me know about XYZ,” and I'll file that away and then say, okay, I no longer need to check with them on this stuff. I think it's just a really good habit to get into, you know, communicating exactly what you're thinking and being open to get communication back from others.

Almost a practice tip or a characteristic that can really help young associates at a firm is the ability to receive a project and triage exactly what needs to be done. So a partner or someone might give you a question or a project or materials to review. And I try to always ask myself, who is this going to go to? What do they need to get away from the deliverable I'm going to give them? And importantly, for purposes of planning your time, what degree of polished does it need to be when it lands on that person's desk? Because, particularly someone like me who is a nerd on formatting and everything, I could spend a very long time on the document, making sure it looks like pristinely pretty. But if you do that for everything that you hand in, you are either going to get burnt out, overwhelmed, not meet other deadlines, or all the above. And so there's this idea of becoming comfortable for like, what is a level of precision or polish for a project that helps inform how long you spend on that project? And I think that's kind of a giant battle that you continue to fight in your first year is like always figuring out like, how much grace will I be given on a project, spelling errors or something like that. Contrast that with if this is going before the court, it's got to be perfect.

Katya Valasek:

So how do you get the answer to that? Do you just ask whoever's asking you to do the work?

Allan Carlsen:

Yeah, so sometimes I would ask. When I first started here, I found a mid-level associate that I not only got along with very well, but also felt very comfortable. She was extremely understanding of what the anxieties of a young attorney are. So even if I had questions on matters that we were not on the same team, I would field questions to her. And sometimes I would literally say, “what is gonna happen if I have a spelling error in this document?” It sounds really silly now, but when you are a brand-new attorney and you're like two weeks on the job and a partner wants you to email something, like in the back of your head, you're like, there better be no spelling errors. And, of course, her response was, “oh my gosh, there's always spelling errors in that person's emails, you'll be okay, don't worry.”

I think the other big thing is always just remembering who is receiving the document at the end of the day. And that should tell you kind of two things. It should tell you about their own personal preferences for how they think work deliverables should be. But also it gives you the underlying purpose of what is going to be before them. If they are hoping to get a near final draft, it should probably be in pristine condition. But if they want to know what the general contours of a legal issue are, they don't care so much about perhaps typos or whatever. They need the substance of the law so they know where to go from there.

Katya Valasek:

How long did it take you to feel confident in making the call on how polished a document needs to be?

Allan Carlsen:

It took...I mean, I still struggle with it today. Sometimes the level of polish a document needs to be will be informed by how much time you have generally, right? Like if it's due on X date a X time, you know, the document's gonna go out the door at that time anyway, regardless of what level of polish it is. But, you know, I still think I war with it probably a little bit. But I'm fairly confident now that if someone says, “why does it look like this?” I could give a reasoned answer for why I thought it was okay. And that's another important thing. I've had people ask me before, why did you do X, Y, Z? And your initial gut when you hear that question is, oh my gosh, I did it wrong. And I try to give a short explanation, don't go on a long diatribe about it, but I give a short explanation. And a lot of times they'll say, “oh, you at least thought about the issue. So that's okay.” And that's reassuring.

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