Mark Dahlby envisioned a very different career as he approached the end of law school in 2005.
“Essentially, I was an environmental law guy coming out of law school,” said Dahlby, who this year joined Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman in Milwaukee. “I changed plans one month before graduation, turned down the job I had on the West Coast and stayed in Wisconsin.”
He made the change because of family, and, Dahlby said, he has no regrets over a choice that led to a niche practice as a Federal Drug Administration and life sciences lawyer, helping companies meet FDA standards for everything from medical devices to dietary supplements.
But it was not easy.
Dahlby started in the deep end, joining a firm that allowed him immediate client contact and trial experience.
“I was fortunate, but it was really challenging, really scary,” he said. “I got to argue in the court of appeals right off the bat. I had three jury trials in one week, and I had no experience with that.
“And I had no one in the firm to lean on that way because it was a small firm.”
Dahlby later worked with GE Healthcare before joining Hall Render about three months ago to focus on FDA and life sciences.
“It’s a complex and constantly changing area of law, which keeps you on your toes,” he said. “You get to help craft it, and then it changes again five years later.
“And underneath everything is actual, real patients and how we take care of them. It’s satisfying.”
Wisconsin Law Journal: What is your greatest fear?
Mark Dahlby: Spiders, or maybe snakes. Or, since I’ve been watching ‘The Walking Dead’ on AMC, it’s probably zombies. Although, when I’m surfing, it’s sharks. Boy, I’ve got a lot of issues. There’s a reason I live in Wisconsin, though: None of those things does well in the snow.
WLJ: What do you consider to be the most overrated virtue?
Dahlby: Regularly getting to work by 6 a.m. I’m one of those people constantly on the iPhone or laptop at all hours, in the evening that is, but you won’t find me very useful at 5 a.m. unless you come to my house with a bucket of hot coffee, a cattle prod to get me out of bed and a great excuse for why I shouldn’t release the hounds.
WLJ: What do you spend hours doing that’s not law-related?
Dahlby: I used to do a lot of backpacking, canoeing, mountain climbing and traveling around the world surfing, basically any outdoor activity that you’ll find in a movie where an animal eats a person. Now, I go to Chuck E. Cheese with my kids and eat pizza.
I loved playing music and hanging out at Summerfest enjoying the bands. Now, I chase my kids around the Summerfest grounds while they try to climb on the stages and dance.
For quite a few years, I spent a lot of time on environmental matters, basically trying to change the world by leading the charge on cemetery nature preserves or conservation cemeteries in Wisconsin and somewhat nationally. Now, I change diapers, frequently.
Ask me this again in a couple years when my kids are grown up a bit, and I should be back to my old ways.
WLJ: Which famous person would you most like to have a drink with? What would you drink?
Dahlby: Hitler and a Dead Nazi. I’d love to explain the drink’s name to him. I’m presuming that I’m armed in this hypothetical.
For a real drink, though, I’d love to meet Bob Uecker. And, of course, we’d have some Miller Lites.
WLJ: What trait do you most like in others?
Dahlby: Emotional intelligence combined with some communication skills. Whether you’re involved in litigation or a business partnership of some kind, it is so difficult to achieve satisfactory outcomes unless everyone involved has a good understanding of where they want to be, where they can settle being and why.
WLJ: What was your least-favorite course in law school?
Dahlby: In law school I had family obligations, was doing construction on my house and worked during the week, sometimes up to 30 hours. So my least-favorite classes were those that required studying. As wrong as that is, it’s true.
I actually did quite well in criminal law without much effort, but I didn’t want to be a criminal lawyer. I wanted to practice environmental law, but couldn’t get through property law to save my life. I still don’t know what the rules would be if I found somebody’s wallet, not that I’ve ever found more than a dime.
WLJ: What was your most useful course in law school?
Dahlby: I can’t say there was one most useful class. Sometime in my second year, I saw alignment between the environmental courses and my career interests, which gave me enough focus.
That’s when I started figuring out how to balance the practice of law with a personal life. That’s why I loved going to school at Wisconsin. There was a great emphasis on learning how to learn and how that is a lifelong skill.
WLJ: What is the best part of being an attorney?
Dahlby: As an attorney in the health care space, particularly focusing on how technologies impact the practice of medicine, it’s the chance to be involved in a constantly, rapidly evolving environment, one defined by constant technological breakthroughs, politics on the macro and micro levels. And underlying everything is the health and safety of real people.
It’s such an interesting environment on both intellectual and emotional levels. You help companies and communities thrive, see new jobs created. You can help doctors reach the best treatment decisions for patients by providing them with critical tools and regulatory knowledge.
You get to contemplate and argue about the social values that drive our treatment of businesses and health care. And the law in this area struggles to keep up with the world around it, so you have the opportunity to help shape it, at least for a very short time before it all gets turned upside down again.
WLJ: If you could develop one CLE course for credit, what would it be about?
Dahlby: If I’m being serious, then it’s probably an overview of FDA-related regulation for non-FDA lawyers. We have many, many companies in this state involved in the medical device or life sciences space, and they’re represented by a lot of good Wisconsin lawyers who don’t have FDA backgrounds or an FDA lawyer in their firm in a different state.
Negative FDA attention can break your business, just crush it. The agency can shut down your production processes and seize your products. No purchasers will want to take a chance on your product.
If I’m not being serious, then I would develop a course on the history of water-access rights to the Great Lakes as relates to surfing. Most people probably don’t know that one of the pioneers of surfing, Tom Blake, was from Washburn, Wis. And most people probably don’t know that there are people like me foolish enough to strap on a dry suit, walk across some ice and surf Lake Michigan in December.
WLJ: What do you consider your biggest achievement so far?
Dahlby: I’ve had a nontraditional approach to my professional life so far. I turned down a job with a big West Coast firm one month before graduation for family reasons and took a job handling a variety of corporate and regulatory matters at a small Milwaukee firm that had a regional niche practice within the Latino community.
Then GE Healthcare came along and thought the breadth of my regulatory and corporate experience would help them manage the wide variety of regulatory risks present when manufacturing and selling medical products.
Five-plus years later, I’m still focusing on FDA and life science industry matters, but now at Hall Render, a firm that really shares my passion for helping grow Wisconsin’s life sciences industry.
So I don’t know if I’d call any of this an achievement, but I am proud of continuing to live by the ideals I embraced as a young man in the Marine Corps. You do your best to make a positive difference, and the mountains you encounter along the way are fun challenges to overcome.