The People’s Lawyer
Allan Karlin's work reverberates through the halls of power
Published in 2008 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 26, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Some of us learn it from the Bible (“To whom much is given, much is expected”). Some learn it from comic books (“With great power comes great responsibility”).
Allan Karlin, who grew up in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, learned the lesson from his mother: “With privilege comes responsibility,” she told him.
He now practices what she preached in Morgantown, W.Va.
“It’s a place where you can have a law practice representing people in a lot of different kinds of cases,” says Karlin, 62, whose practice, Allan N. Karlin & Associates, spans employment, personal injury, wrongful death and civil rights cases. “If you see lawyers in big cities, people tend to specialize in this or that or the other thing. I’ve been able to have a varied practice that would be much harder to maintain outside of a place like West Virginia.”
Since moving to Morgantown in 1974, when he accepted a job with the North Central West Virginia Legal Aid Society, Karlin has devoted himself to fighting the good fight.
Larry Starcher has had an up-close view of Karlin through it all, first as the director of the North Central West Virginia Legal Aid Society and now as a justice on West Virginia’s Supreme Court. He still marvels at what he sees.
“Allan takes it seriously,” Starcher says. “He believes there’s a reason to be honest; he believes a lawyer can do a lot of good in the world. He’s a people’s lawyer, and he really does significant work. He has the highest integrity. I consider Allan Karlin to be the smartest and one of the most courageous lawyers in the state of West Virginia.”
The courtroom, of course, is where Karlin’s brains and guts are on full display.
“He’s tenacious,” says Chuck DiSalvo, a law professor at West Virginia University who has known Karlin since 1979. “He’s a superb cross-examiner—he can smoke out the inconsistencies from a witness better than anyone I’ve ever seen. But just because he’s tenacious doesn’t mean he can’t be really human in the courtroom. I’ve seen him on opening statements and closing arguments just be completely present to the jury and its concerns.”
Karlin’s journey began in Lincolnwood, Ill., where his father (a personal injury lawyer) and his mother (the speaker of wisdom) imparted lessons that would frame his worldview. One summer, the Karlins were driving across the country on vacation. After a long day on the road, they pulled up to a motel somewhere in Missouri and were greeted by a sign that read: WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE CUSTOMERS.
“See that sign?” said Karlin’s father. “That means they discriminate against blacks. We’re not going to stay here.” The Karlins kept driving.
“You grow up knowing what you know,” says Karlin. “It never dawned on me to be any different, so that’s really a reflection of my parents and the way they brought me up. It’s always been a part of my life to try to see the world through those who either don’t have power or have been victimized or don’t have the kinds of privileges that exist in the United States.”
These ideals guided him through Yale (where he graduated in 1969) and Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California at Berkeley (1974). Along the way, Karlin refined his vision by teaching English in Morocco in 1966 and ’67 and working with the poor as a VISTA volunteer in Texarkana, Ark., in 1969 and ’70. When it came time for Karlin to start his law career, he shunned the corporate path.
“I wound up getting an offer from this fancy Washington, D.C., firm,” Karlin says. “But I always felt that the big corporations and the power in this country never had problems getting lawyers. I never wanted to be one of those lawyers.”
So Karlin went to work for the North Central West Virginia Legal Aid Society on a Reginald Heber Smith scholarship, providing legal services to low-income people. Starcher, who was director of the society and Karlin’s supervisor, remembers those days well. He laughs when recounting Karlin’s gung-ho spirit.
“He and someone else I hired both started talking about how they were going to run the legal services office, even though I was the director,” says Starcher. “They were going to take the salary pool and divide it equally among all the staff. Everyone was going to share the different jobs; I would be the secretary one month and the director the next month. We’d rotate these roles.
“Well, Allan comes from a well-to-do family, and I am the first in my whole clan to graduate from high school. My daddy was making $270 a month when I started college. I listened to them for a while, and then I said, ‘Listen, guys, I don’t care what you do with your salary. You can try to climb down that ladder of social success if you want to, but I’ve been spending a little bit of my time trying to get up it. All I ask is that you be careful as you come down and don’t step on my fingers.'”
Karlin didn’t become director until 1976 (Starcher had been elected circuit judge of Monongalia County); then he spent the next several years doing what he did best: counseling those in need. But by 1981 he felt restless and decided to start his own practice.
“My dad was a trial lawyer, and I really wanted to find out how good I was at it,” Karlin says.
Karlin also yearned for the type of freedom his own practice would deliver. Although jobs don’t rotate every month—unbridled idealism has been tempered somewhat by the reality of running a business—his practice enables him to promote the values he holds most dear.
“You choose [the cases] you want to do and try to craft a law practice that’s a reflection of who you are,” says Karlin, who has three attorneys on his staff. “And you get to choose the people you represent, many of whom you remain close to and develop bonds with.”
In 1989, in Casteel v. Consolidation Coal Company, Karlin and DiSalvo represented a coal miner named Lawrence Casteel who had been fired from his job on the grounds of handicap. The case went before the West Virginia Supreme Court, where they defended a $750,000 jury verdict.
“Al is arguing the case for us,” recalls DiSalvo. “Throughout Al’s argument, the court is clearly against us. Eventually, the chief justice gives the universal signal to sit down: ‘Thank you, Mr. Karlin, we think we understand your case.’ The case is lost, but then comes Al’s unbelievable response: ‘No, I don’t think you do.’ He then goes on to turn the court completely around. His tenacity—and the honesty of the defense counsel during his argument—resulted in a 5-0 decision upholding the jury verdict in favor of our client.”
But the case that made national news involved a couple from Iran. In May 2004, Aliakbar and Shahla Afshari were fired from their jobs at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Morgantown for supposedly failing a secret background check. The case was thought to be a long shot when it first crossed Karlin’s desk. Since the Afsharis weren’t U.S. citizens, they weren’t considered Civil Service employees and, therefore, could have been fired at any time.
“When we first went to see Al, our intention was that we just wanted to protect ourselves from whatever happened in the future,” remembers Shahla Afshari. “We were very vulnerable and scared. It was the first time I ever had to go to a lawyer, and my perception of lawyers was that they were people who wouldn’t talk to you until they got money and so on. But when we met with him for the first time, the way he cared was really different from what I thought it would be. He seemed very honest and very interested in the case—he was like a good friend. Whenever we went to see him, we came back with hope.”
Such hope wasn’t everywhere. More than a few people thought he was crazy for pursuing the case. But Karlin says, “There were so many things about this case that made you feel, ‘This is why I became a lawyer.’ The Afsharis came here in 1986. They have three kids who are just wonderful. Everybody liked them. I’ve never seen people who had so much support from the community.”
After more than two years, Karlin prevailed. In December 2006, the federal government admitted it had made a mistake, and the Afsharis received more than $600,000 and were told they could return to their jobs at the agency. The case confirmed Karlin’s faith in the U.S. justice system—particularly when he deposed the director of NIOSH, John Howard, who had approved the dismissals of the Afsharis.
“You have these two really bright, really nice people from Iran, and they’re sitting in Washington, D.C., watching their lawyer take a deposition from the director of NIOSH,” Karlin says. “We take that for granted in the United States. I had the right to make a high government official answer questions for these two folks who had been fired from their jobs.”
From Shahla Afshari’s vantage point, the questioning itself was like a game of dodgeball. “It was really interesting for both [me and Aliakbar] to see,” she says. “Of course, [Howard] didn’t have anything interesting to say, except that he forgot everything and didn’t know about many of the questions that were being asked.” The simple fact that they had made it that far was what mattered most to the Afsharis. “It was a great feeling for us to see that we were getting somewhere,” Shahla says. “I must admit, it is a great country to be able to do that.”
It should come as no surprise that Karlin’s ideals are shared by his family—wife Millie, daughter Jenna, 28, and son Sam, 25. Millie works for Good News Garage, a statewide program that donates cars to people coming off welfare who need a vehicle to get to work; Jenna is a union organizer in Rhode Island; and Sam recently spent several months preparing for an environmental conference.
When Karlin isn’t fighting the good fight, he indulges in his other passion: world travel. It’s another way to broaden his mind, although he’s always glad to return to his adopted home of Morgantown.
“West Virginia is really a wonderful state to live in,” Karlin says. “It’s the kind of place where you feel like you’re part of a community. It lacks all of the tensions and problems of modern life in the big city.”
Besides, Karlin has no reason to move anywhere else. There is plenty to keep him busy in his corner of West Virginia.
“The basic notion that the individual should have rights to a certain sense of justice and equality against power, whether it be the power of the government or the power of corporations, is what makes this country very special,” Karlin says. “It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s still there. It’s an ideal, and it’s really important that we fight to preserve it.”