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Grit, Fearlessness, and a Flair for the Creative

By Alissa Mallinson

“A lot of people think law is this very staid, confined, operate-within-the-four-corners field, but I think there’s a lot of creativity that comes about in crafting arguments and coming up with strategies about how to present ideas,” says Cari K. Dawson ’93, Partner at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, Georgia. “I’ve actually found it to be a wonderful profession in the sense of my creative outlet.”

Cari hadn’t always envisioned herself as the multi-district, class action litigator she is now.

She had, however, envisioned herself as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, dancing and singing on a Broadway stage.

“When I was in elementary school, my parents took me to see The Wiz with Stephanie Mills on Broadway,” she remembers. “And that’s when I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m going to be a Broadway star!’”

Cari followed her passion for drama to the stage, playing Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in The Music Man and singing in the Westminster Ensemble, an auditioned tour choir, during high school. In addition to being a passionate performer and an outstanding student, Cari was also involved in the student body, cheerleading, and various clubs.

“I like being well rounded and having a lot of different experiences,” she says, “because that’s how you grow and learn.

“My parents taught my brother and I many things: the importance of a great education, passion, and excellence, and not to let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong. They taught us to take advantage of every opportunity and not to sit by the wayside.”

Embodying that advice, Cari also joined her high school debate team. It was then that a new vision for her future began to take shape.

It was during her freshman year, and as she sat in the Emory University Law Library researching a legal component of that year’s debate team resolution, she remembers thinking, “If I were a trial lawyer, I could do research, analysis, and debate, and combine that with my flair for the dramatic.”

After high school, Cari attended Princeton University, and when it came time to choose her post-graduate path, it wasn’t much of a mystery: She wanted to study law.

“My parents taught me to try for the best and to get the best possible education, and there was no doubt in my mind that Harvard Law School was it,” she says.

“I wanted to constantly learn and develop, and the environment at Harvard Law School provides that in spades, probably more than any other law school program. At HLS, your peers are some of the brightest minds out there and have had some amazing experiences. The chance to learn from them and to develop relationships with people you know are going to do amazing things drew me to HLS.”

Cari did not sit by the wayside at Harvard Law School either. She was a member of the HLS Drama Society for all three years and performed in the Parody for three years as well. She was also active in the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), worked at the BlackLetter Law Journal, and participated in the Ames Moot Court Competition as part of the first all-black team to make it to the finals.

When she entered HLS as a 1L, her plan was to become an international corporate lawyer after she graduated. But when she learned that her father was ill, her plans began to evolve. She knew she wanted to be close to him in Atlanta, where she had grown up, and at the same time, her love for oration and strategy started to call her in a different career direction: litigation. She directed her attention to Atlanta law firms and eventually chose to join Alston & Bird, an up-and-coming law firm at the time.

“My dad owned his own company, so there’s an entrepreneurial spirit within me of growing a business. When I was looking at law firms, I found that at Alston & Bird I could do that. I saw a place where I could learn a lot and be in a position where I wasn’t the 16th lawyer on a matter.”

She was right. After she completed a clerkship for Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, she went directly to Alston & Bird, and within two months, Cari was second chair on a medical malpractice case.

“At Alston & Bird, I have had really terrific mentors and people who invested in my development and growth. I received so much support from my firm,” she says. “And because I had started as second chair on medical malpractice suits, I was never intimidated by very big litigation.”

Cari quickly established herself in the practice area of multi-district litigation and class-action lawsuits, and by the age of 42, she was leading major cases for companies like Toyota.

“It’s really important to me to master the facts and the documents,” she says.

“I always tell my clients, ‘The law is great, but what makes cases are the facts.’ You apply the law to the facts. Understanding early on what are the good facts, what are the bad facts, what are your best documents, who are your best witnesses – I think those questions are critically important, and it also goes back to that creativity…being creative and not being afraid to take risks in the types of arguments that you make.”

Cari makes it a point now to pass along to young lawyers the fearlessness and hard work that her parents instilled in her.

“I try to conduct myself in such a way that hopefully will inspire young lawyers. But even more than inspire, I hope my hard work motivates them. And I hope that they can learn from what I think is truly one of the key attributes you need to be successful: Grit.”