A Law Firm Representing the Rights of Employees and the Victims of Wrongful Injury

Allan N. Karlin Named One of WVU College of Law's 2018 Lawyers & Leaders

Submitted by on Thu, 13/09/18 - 14:46


     Since beginning his career at Legal Aid of West Virginia in 1974, Allan Karlin, founder and attorney of Allan N. Karlin & Associates, has committed decades of work to representing the victims of injustice and those denied fundamental rights.
    “If making a lot of money is always a factor in the selection of cases, one misses the chance to do a lot of interesting work,” says Karlin. “Besides, this kind of work is good for the soul.”
    Today, Karlin is known as a top trial attorney in West Virginia, and he has been renowned for his pro bono work, especially in civil rights cases, and his work with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to exonerating wrongfully convicted people.
    Karlin’s compassion for marginalized individuals stems from his family’s guidance as a child. He grew up in Chicago, where his father worked as a plaintiff’s attorney and his mother was a homemaker dedicated to volunteer work. Karlin’s parents instilled in him the value of using one’s gifts to combat injustice through their work and the teachings of the Jewish faith.
    “I was always a good student,” he recalls. “My mother reminded me many times that with the gift of intelligence comes a responsibility to use that gift wisely. To her that meant helping others and standing up for what was right. As a Jew, I was also reminded every year at the Passover holiday that Passover was not a dusty old religious tale but rather a lesson that we should resist every form of slavery against all people, regardless of religion, race or national origin.”

    Karlin places high importance on seeing these principles in action as a foundation of his aspirations in law. “I recall on a family trip when I was a child, we were going to stay overnight in a town where one of my favorite baseball players owned a motel,” he says. “I asked my parents if we could stay at this white ballplayer’s motel, and they said yes—until we arrived and saw a sign on the door that said words to the effect of ‘We reserve the right to refuse a room to prospective guests.’ Seeing that sign, my father immediately turned around and left the parking lot even though it was already dark and we needed a place to sleep. He explained, in a lesson I never forgot, that the sign meant the motel discriminated against black persons, and we weren’t going to give it our business.”
    Karlin had a chance early in life to implement the lessons his parents taught him while completing a five-year bachelor’s degree at Yale University, where his studies included a year of teaching public school in Fes, Morocco. He graduated summa cum laude in 1969.
    After college, he worked with poor and working-class residents of Texarkana, Texas, as a member of Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA. His work focused on organizing and educating members of low-income communities about their rights. This experience proved to be a turning point in Karlin’s life. While working with a local pastor who helped bring the struggle against poverty and discrimination to Texarkana, Karlin and his fellow VISTA members were banned from the city by its council.
    We had just been voted out of Texarkana after being portrayed as dangerous outsiders who had come to promote an attack on its alleged values,” he recalls. “We thought our local enemies were coming to get us, but the pastor, Reverend David Stephens, gathered us together and said, ‘How can we turn this to our advantage?’ That has been my motto ever since. No matter how bad things look, there may be a way to turn events around. It is an attitude that has served me well in my legal career.”
    After seeing that the VISTA group’s lawyer was able to use legal channels to help people who lived outside of the city’s power structure, Karlin decided to enroll in law school. “Maturing in the 1960s and early 1970s, I viewed law as an important avenue for social change,” he says. “In part, this view was nurtured by the activist lawyers who brought civil rights, criminal justice and other types of cases to fight discrimination and protect civil rights.”
    Karlin graduated with Order of the Coif honors from the University of California Berkeley School of Law in 1974. He became active in the Berkeley community during law school by volunteeringwith a group that counseled tenants and encouraged tenant organizing. His work also focused on issues of constitutionality,including working on an appellate brief to defend Berkeley’s rent control ordinance. On the academic front, he was part of a group that argued for the development of externship programs for clinical opportunities.
    Karlin’s first job after law school brought him to Morgantown, WV, where he joined the North Central West Virginia Legal Aid Society. Although he was new to the state, Karlin found mentorship from his supervisor, Larry Starcher, who later became a justice on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.
    Justice Larry Starcher was responsible for bringing me here, and even though I worked with him less than two years, he certainly taught me a lot about West Virginia and practicing law,” says Karlin.
    After Starcher left Legal Aid to become a circuit judge, Karlin was appointed asits interim director. He became the officialdirector in 1976 and held the position until 1981 when he decided to open his own firm. “I wanted to do more civil rights work, and I wanted to practice law without the increasing constraints on what a legal aid attorney could do in the 1980s,” he says. “I did not want to go the route of established firms. I wanted to represent working people in discrimination, retaliation, civil rights and sexual harassment cases and do some criminal law. Most of all, I wanted to be free to take the cases I wanted to take.”
    Working alongside one other attorney, today most of Karlin’s cases involve harassment, discrimination, wrongful discharge and personal injury. He stresses that operating a private practice allows him to take cases that make a big difference in his clients’ lives and align with the firm’s moral and political values.
    I consider myself privileged to be able to make a good living in a law practice where neither economic pressure nor the policies of the firm require me to represent clients in cases where I either don’t like the case, don’t believe in the case and/or would rather not represent the client,” says Karlin. “This has allowed my firm tosometimes get involved in controversialcases without concern that someone might disapprove of our involvement.”
    Karlin also places high value on cases that provide opportunities for education and community involvement. In his early days of private practice, he successfully represented a victim of domestic violence who was charged with first-degree murder in defense of her children and herself.
    It was very special to work on a case where my client was innocent under the law and where the case also educated the community about an important social issue,” he says. “It was also a special privilege to stand up in a courtroom representing my client with the support of many in the community sitting behind me, especially given the jury’s verdict of not guilty.”
    More recently, Karlin has worked with the Innocence Project to free a West Virginian from a wrongful prison sentence.
    “Can you imagine anything more horrible than being sentenced to prison for a minimum of 40 years when you were only 19 years old for a horrendous crime you did not commit?” he says. “Despite the protections of our criminal justice system, innocent people do get convicted and even in some cases plead guilty because of poor legal advice or simply fear that worse things will happen if they do not plead. There is a saying in both the Jewish and Muslim holy writings to the effect of, ‘Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.’ Working with the Innocence Project and ultimately succeeding in this case made this quote very real for me.”
    Although Karlin is not a native West Virginian, he has developed strong ties to West Virginia University College of Law, where he is a dean’s partner and helped create and teach the pre-trial litigation course. He has also received the college’s Justitia Officium Award.
    His community service includes being chairperson of the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board, co-chair of fundraising for Legal Aid and a member of United Way of Monongalia and PrestonCounties’ allocation committee. He serves on the board of the West Virginia Fund for Law in the Public Interest, which provides stipends for law students working in public interest internships andattorneys working in public interest jobs after law school. He has also been active in several professional organizations and served as past president of the West Virginia Association of Justice.
    Karlin has been recognized with several awards and honors, including the Sid Bell Memorial Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. While he appreciates this acclaim, he places higher importance on his wife and their family and friends, the relationships he has developed with clients and the fulfillment of having done work that benefits society.
    “It is good to look in the mirror and believe that, win or lose, you tried and, most often, succeeded in helping someone get through hard times, in righting a wrong and in contributing in some small way to a more just world,” he says.