Sometimes the pursuit of happiness requires changing directions. And you may have to change directions more than once to succeed. It took me three times.
The first big decision I made to change directions in my career was when I decided to go to law school. Prior to law school I obtained my CPA and worked for a big accounting firm in St. Louis. After I got engaged, my now-husband Brant encouraged me to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming an attorney. I had not yet done so because it seemed reckless and wasteful to quit a good job to go back to school after I had spent so much time and money getting a masters in accounting and obtaining my CPA. Ironically, my accounting education allowed me to realize that my accounting education was what accountants call a “sunk cost.” “Sunk costs” are unrecoverable past expenditures that should not be considered when determining whether to continue a project or abandon it (even though common instinct is to count them) because they cannot be recovered either way. When I stopped factoring in sunk costs, it became a lot easier to decide to change directions and go to law school.
During law school I was one of the lucky few in my class to land a Summer Associate position at a big law firm – Armstrong Teasdale – for the summers after my 1L and 2L years. The attorneys at Armstrong Teasdale were extremely talented and intelligent and I loved every minute I worked for them. In fact, even the most boring assignment I completed for the big law firm was more interesting to me than the most interesting assignment I completed for the big accounting firm.
I also had the good fortune of being introduced to Judge Mary R. Russell of the Missouri Supreme Court when I was a 2L. When she asked me to clerk for her for a year after graduation I agreed without hesitation.
I have the law school’s Career Services office to thank for my second change in direction in my career. During law school, as I had my career all figured out by my 2L year (or so I believed), I thought it was stupid that I was required to go to a certain number Career Services presentations in order to graduate. Of course, I procrastinated until the last presentation the last semester of my 3L year to fulfill the requirement. The only presentation left was on a topic that I believed would have no relevance to my future career- criminal law. I could not have been more mistaken. The panel’s public defender (Justin Carver) was so passionate about his work and the Constitution that I decided to totally change directions and pursue a career as a public defender. Again, it seemed like a very reckless decision to turn down a much sought-after job with a big law firm (whose attorneys I admired and respected), particularly because I had to turn the job down more than a year before I would know whether or not I would be hired by the public defender. But, thankfully (and just barely) it worked out and after my clerkship I started in the trial office of the public defender here in Columbia, Missouri.
I stayed at the Public Defender’s office a little more than three years. In that short time I handled over a thousand cases ranging from littering to murder in the first degree. That means I opened and closed more than one case a day on average. The fast-paced environment allowed for me to get a lot of jury trial experience in a short amount of time. I loved my job because I believe if the constitutional rights of the least powerful among us- the indigent- are protected, we can feel safe in knowing that the Constitution is protected for all of us.
One crucial part of protecting the rights of the indigent is providing indigent clients with an adequate defense. I worked hard to do that for each of my clients despite my huge caseload. I worked nights and weekends but I could not get caught up because new cases kept coming nonstop. I could not do everything I wanted to do on every case but I kept going because I believed I was getting good results for my clients and that I was doing as well or better as another attorney would do in my place. But then one day I had a client who did not wish to accept the prosecutor’s plea offer. And the plea offer was not very fair. But it crossed my mind that it would be easier to convince my client to take the unfair plea offer than it would be to get the prosecutor to make a fair one. And when that thought crossed my mind, I knew I had to leave.
That leads me to my third and final (to-date, anyway) major career path change. I knew I had to leave the Public Defender’s office but I did not know what I wanted to do next. Now, my husband had been suggesting to me for over ten years that I start my own business. I always thought it was a terrible idea. I did not know how to start my own law firm. Besides, I had offers for real jobs that I would have to turn down if I were to start my own firm. The whole idea seemed ridiculous. But when I left the Public Defender’s office, I decided to give it a shot. I opened up my own law firm – Bukowsky Law Firm – with a bright red awning across from the Boone County Courthouse and a website at http://www.lawbuk.com.
My practice is focused exclusively on criminal law, so I have the privilege of defending the Constitution on a daily basis. I have a terrific team of two paralegals and two interns. I love going to work each day and the freedom that comes with being my own boss. I don’t know if I could work for anyone else ever again.
I did not foresee that I would find happiness as a criminal defense attorney and law firm owner. Your career will probably lead you to places you do not foresee now as well. My advice for you as you go forth in your careers please remember:
- To ignore sunk costs;
- That the best path for you may or may-not be the most sought-after one;
- To always abide by your ethical duties to your clients even if it means leaving your job; and
- That you may need to change directions in order to successfully pursue happiness.