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Puzzling the Pieces Together: A Law Student Works Toward an Equitable Future

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Emma Atkinson

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Caley Carlson will leave the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law knowing she’s made a difference.

Caley Carlson headshot.

Sturm College of Law student Caley Carlson always knew she was interested in becoming a lawyer.

“I grew up as that really annoying kid that always asked a thousand questions,” she recalls. “Most of them were something along the lines of, ‘Why or how does that work?’”

Carlson, originally from Portland, Oregon, says she has fond memories of sitting down to complete thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles with her family over holiday breaks—and that time spent fitting small cardboard pieces together created more than just a happy memory for her.

“Putting pieces together to figure out a bigger picture has always been something that I've really liked,” Carlson says. “I figured my genuine curiosity and my love for putting pieces together to make some sort of narrative or picture would be really well-suited for the legal field.”

Building her community

According to Carlson, one of the best decisions she’s made in the past few years was  “accidentally” adopting a dog—Buddy, an Australian cattle dog, is now one of the many puzzle pieces that fit perfectly into her life.

Other choices Carlson has made during her time at DU have been a little more intentional—and have worked out just as well. Her resume boasts a lengthy list of student and professional organizations, and she’s risen to leadership positions within many of them.

The common thread among those organizations? They’re all mission-driven, working to build equity and accessibility in the Denver legal community. Carlson, a Vietnamese adoptee, has also sought out organizations that focus on inclusion.

DU Sturm Law student Caley Carlson poses for a photo among greenery in the Sturm College of Law.

She’s a member of Denver Law Ascent, a Sturm program that helps incoming students from underrepresented communities feel at home before they step foot on campus. Carlson is also president of the Asian Pacific Law Student Association (APLSA).

“I think it's really important that law schools have affinity groups, because it goes back to just having some sense of community and belonging,” Carlson says. “And even though people have different lived experiences, we still have shared experiences that you don't often find in places in the legal community.”

Carlson has worked this year to grow APLSA’s presence on DU’s campus, expanding the organization’s board, hosting campus office hours and pushing for new graduation regalia that will adorn APLSA members’ gowns for the first time this spring.

“It’s been really rewarding,” she says.

For Carlson, this work is not just about making a difference now in the Sturm law community but also about leaving a legacy for those who come next.

“There aren’t lot of people that look like me or are from the same background as me,” she says. “And so doing the work that I've done—now it’s all a stepping stone toward making small changes that will eventually snowball into larger changes.”

Looking ahead—and back

After graduation this spring, Carlson will take the Colorado Bar exam before heading to the Colorado Supreme Court as a clerk for Justice Maria Berkenkotter (JD ’87). Following her year of clerking, Carlson plans to take her legal talents to Denver law firm Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, where she hopes to work in commercial litigation.

Looking back on her career at DU, Carlson says it’s important to note that there’s more to her than what people see on her robust resume.

“I always describe myself as a stereotypical type, a Virgo law student who likes to be busy and doesn't know what to do when they're not busy,” she says, jokingly. “But the things that I'm doing aren't just things to check off a box or things just to fill my time. They’re the things that I actually care about.”