How to become a fashion lawyer, Part 2: My career path, which might be of no help at all

Posted by Charles Colman

A Polish law student, Anna Radke, asked me some questions a while back; the interview was recently posted online, but my answers appeared in Polish.  Because Google Translate utterly butchered my responses, I decided to post a revised/supplemented version of the original Q&A here...

How did you begin your career? I'd love to hear about your educational background, training, internships, work experience, etc.


I’ve had multiple “careers” – or at least, a diverse array of jobs. Immediately after college, I worked at a hedge fund while performing around New York as a singer/songwriter. I also tried magazine and book publishing before deciding to apply to law school.


When I first arrive at Columbia Law, I was very focused on LGBT-rights impact litigation; I spent my 1L summer at the Chicago office of Lambda Legal, interning for one of the attorneys I admire most in this world, Camilla Taylor.  But for various reasons, over the course of my 2L year, I gravitated more and more toward intellectual property law.  I interviewed for and accepted a job at a large firm, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, in the hope of getting substantial copyright and trademark experience.


Unfortunately, as is true at most firms, there just wasn’t enough of that type of work to go around.  At the time, many associates at Patterson and other large law firms were devoting most of their billable hours to litigation arising out of the economic collapse.  I was concerned about getting pigeonholed as a securities litigator; it's alarmingly easy to fall into a certain "track" that can determine "what kind of lawyer" you are for many years to come.  So I had to decide whether to stay at PBWT for a few years, hoping I would be able to make the transition to intellectual-property law down the line, or to leave relatively early on and try to practice IP law in some other venue.  I chose the latter option, leaving PBWT after about sixteen months to start my own IP-oriented "boutique" law firm, Charles Colman Law, PLLC.


What recommendations do you have for someone starting out in IP and/or "fashion law"? What skills are necessary to obtain and thrive in an entry-level position?


It can be very difficult to obtain entry-level positions in either area.  (There are some exceptions, like patent prosecution, for those who are qualified.)  Often, the most one can hope for is to land an entry-level job that will position him or her for an eventual jump into an IP and/or fashion-related job.  This requires a substantial amount of strategy on the part of a job seeker; investigate what IP firms and fashion companies require of applicants now, and try to anticipate how those requirements might change over the next few years.  And of course, it should go without saying that you have to know your stuff.


On that front, I'd strongly recommend that aspiring fashion lawyers purchase Gibson Dunn partners Lois Herzeca and Howard Hogan's newly published tome, Fashion Law and Business: Brands and Retailers. (Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy to review.)  For those interested in a general overview of the different facets of "fashion law," check out the recently released revised edition of Fashion Law: A Guide for Designers, Executives, and Attorneys -- which, you'll notice, happens to include my chapter on copyright protection.  (It couldn't hurt to join the LAW OF FASHION LinkedIn group, either...)


As to the second part of your question, I can only list the skills that I value in law-student interns working at my firm.  Off the top of my head, I'd say that I look for (1) a solid understanding of the relevant law; (2) facility with legal research; (3) a strong work ethic; (4) a willingness to work on areas outside one’s comfort zone/one’s areas of interest; and (5) the social/emotional intelligence to work well with one’s colleagues.  (The skills and relationships necessary for client development can be an asset, though of course that will depend on the environment in which you're working.)


What is it like to own your law firm? Do you prefer that experience to working for a large corporation?


It will come as no surprise to hear that running one's own firm carries greater risks and greater potential rewards than working at an established firm.  Starting a firm from scratch requires that a lawyer use (or acquire, then use) marketing and networking skills.  In my experience, the best form of "marketing" for a new law firm is demonstrating expertise through a blog, articles, and books -- along with good representation, of course.  (Happy clients generate more referrals than unhappy ones!)


Naturally, there is much more hands-on administrative work involved in running one's own firm, like accounting and website maintenance.  Early on, a lawyer will probably have to handle tasks like this, which would be handled for you at a large firm.  But even if you are eventually able to pay someone to handle certain administrative tasks, there will always be more logistical issues on your plate at your own firm than as an associate at someone else's.  Some attorneys don’t enjoy this non-legal work – they’d rather just be given assignments and do them well – and there’s nothing wrong with that.  The most important thing is to have enough self-awareness to know which type of environment will allow you to thrive.


As for which environment I prefer, I can't say definitively; there are pros and cons to each.  Also, these days I have one foot in academia as well, which makes it even harder to answer this part of your question.  There isn't always an obvious synergy among these different activities; scholarly pieces like this one, for example, aren't of much use in practice, as they're too theoretical to illustrate an attorney's practical expertise.  Indeed, the "esoteric" nature of many law-review articles has drawn criticism from various judges and practitioners in recent years, but I think that criticism is somewhat misguided.  Society is enriched through dialogues about cultural phenomena and their potential ramifications for the law, even if such dialogues don't directly or immediately lead to legislative or doctrinal changes.  My involvement in the study and teaching of fashion theory through NYU's Costume Studies program, for example, has illuminated important issues -- at least, from my perspective -- of which I would not otherwise be aware.


What do you look for in a new hire: talent, writing skills, educational background (and, if so, what degrees/rankings)?


I don't hire entry-level associates -- or any full-time employees, for that matter -- because I'm interested in keeping my firm as a small IP/fashion-oriented boutique for now (especially as I continue to figure out how best to balance practice with academia.)  But even if I could answer on my firm's behalf, I'm not sure how helpful that would be: if you ask the same question to someone running a small firm, a partner at a large firm, a government lawyer, and a public-interest lawyer, you’ll get four different answers.  It's probably safe to say that all four types of attorneys will be looking, at the very least, for the five qualities listed in the second part of my response to your first question; beyond that, there will be enormous variation.


Do you enjoy your job? Is this what you always wanted to do, or did your career goals change along the way?


Well, my new(est) full-time job is Acting Assistant Professor at NYU Law School (even though my firm remains open, with my availability subject to my teaching and writing commitments) -- and actually, my even newer (part-time) job is as an Adjunct Professor of fashion history and theory in NYU's Visual Culture: Costume Studies M.A. Program.  But yes, I enjoy running my own firm, and I also enjoy being in an academic environment.  They offer different types of satisfaction.


I definitely did not always know that this was what I wanted to do; again, I worked in music, finance, and publishing before law school, and continued to explore different career paths even after I became a law student.  I do think there is an important trial-and-error component to figuring out what one wants to do, but my impression is that there may be less room for that today than in the past, which is unfortunate.


What has your favorite case been so far?


My favorite case to follow since I've been licensed to practice was, without a doubt, the Louboutin v. YSL “red sole” litigation, because it raised fascinating questions about the intersection of social status, creativity, and trademark law.  (I explained the case in "plain English" here, blogged about the dispute several times, and am currently working on a more ambitious law-review article exploring some fundamental principles of product-design trade dress that came up in the case.)


My favorite case that I have handled personally since starting my own practice -- since I won't discuss matters I worked on at Patterson Belknap -- was a litigation matter in which I defended jewelry designer Henry Dunay after his previous attorney withdrew from the case.  Before I got involved, the presiding judge had ruled that Mr. Dunay, whose trademark rights had been auctioned off in bankruptcy, was forbidden from using his own name -- even in connection with e-mail and social media!  (This struck me as representative of a more general -- and worrisome -- "creep" in trademark law, which I've referred to as the "trademarklawpocalypse" and written about here and here; I've even gotten some ink in connection with the term, like here and here.) After stepping in, I immediately moved to vacate the court's overly broad order, and succeeded in getting Mr. Dunay his e-mail and social media rights back.  I appealed the court’s refusal to modify the rest of its order, but that appeal wasn’t fully briefed or adjudicated, for reasons I can’t discuss.


A close second to the Dunay matter, I guess, is a dispute that never actually went to court: my co-representation of blogger Rachel Kane of against Forever 21, which had tried to intimidate Kane into taking down her critical site based on bogus claims of intellectual-property infringement.  Once she secured legal representation, Forever 21 backed down.  I wish I had time to intervene in every "trademark bully" situation, but there are only so many hours in the day.  (To any law-school administrators reading this: please contact me if you're interested in exploring the possibility of creating a trademark/free speech clinic.)


How is the legal industry different from when you started? Has the economy had an influence on it?


While there is plenty of data out there on large-scale changes to the legal industry over the past five years, I'm not comfortable putting my two cents in at this point in my career.  But one thing few would dispute is that clients are more and more focused on the cost of legal services.  This is partly a result of the economy, but there are other factors, too; it’s actually a rather complicated phenomenon, but there are many articles in Inside Counsel, the ABA Journal, and even general-circulation publications like the Wall Street Journal discussing the factors in play, for those who are curious.


What are the most important factors governing career success?


This will always differ depending on one’s chosen career, one’s personality, and many other factors.  But I think it’s safe to say that hard work, a balance between patience and ambition, and the ability to accept and act on constructive criticism will always contribute to one’s success.  Beyond that, I’ll leave the answer to the experts…