Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. This is the fourth part of a 5-part series on Legal Connection. Click here for Part 1, click here for Part 2, and click here for Part 3.
InQ: How old were you when you first felt that practicing law was what you wanted do for a career?
Tony: I was 20 years old.
InQ: How old were you when you started practicing law full-time?
Tony: I started practicing law full-time at 24, and I practiced full-time for roughly seven years. I did legal work as part of my job for another twenty-five years.
InQ: When did you first start thinking about exiting the full-time practice of law?
Tony: I began having second thoughts about full-time private practice when I was 26 or 27. I really didn’t enjoy being a hired gun and felt like I was spending way too much time sitting behind a desk. I was in private practice for only a couple of years before I decided I’d rather go count elk or caribou in the woods.
InQ: Did you develop any sort of plan at that point—whether to count elk, caribou, or some other critters?
Tony: I realized that my law degree and undergraduate degree in English literature were not going to be particularly helpful if I wanted to pursue a new career in wildlife management. I decided to go back to the University of Colorado and get a master’s degree in biology. I thought I could get the degree in eighteen months. It ended up taking closer to two years.
InQ: Did any obstacles to your plan crop up?
Tony: My wife, who was working full-time, was pregnant with our first child. Money was a little tight and I took a couple of part-time clerking jobs. As a former practitioner, it was relatively easy to find part-time work. To stay within a two-year time frame, I earned a master’s of basic science, which was a less prestigious and less useful degree than a master’s in wildlife biology.
InQ: What strategies did you employ to manage these obstacles?
Tony: I was very, very nice to my wife.
InQ: Always a good strategy. At any point did you think about reversing course?
Tony: I didn’t have any second thoughts about returning to school. I thoroughly enjoyed the course work and appreciated the learning experience in a way I hadn’t in law school or as an undergraduate. Although I didn’t reverse course, I did alter it. When I graduated with the MBS, I found that while I was qualified for entry-level positions in wildlife management, many potential employers were interested in me primarily because I was a lawyer with a science degree. I also realized, belatedly, that law school and private practice had ruined me as a scientist. I wasn’t going to be satisfied simply collecting data; I wanted to apply the information in some way. Apparently, once an advocate, always an advocate. Eventually, I accepted a position as legal counsel for National Wildlife Federation’s Prairie Wetlands Resource Center in Bismarck, North Dakota. This was the beginning of a wonderful twenty-six years in the nonprofit world.
So, I didn’t reverse course, but I did make a few course corrections. After transferring to National Wildlife Federation’s Alaska office, I became the regional director in 1997. After eleven years with the organization, I was ready for a change, and the director position involved different responsibilities. Seven years later, I arranged to swap jobs with one of our staff attorneys. As senior attorney, I was able to work on specific projects and reduce my hours.
InQ: Did you eventually leave the practice of law completely?
Tony: I went part-time in 2013 and retired earlier this year.
InQ: Some say that the biggest hurdles to changing one’s career path are a lack of imagination, fear, and finances—what do you think?
Tony: I’ve never had any problem filling my time or imagining life without a full-time job. After working most of my career at a nonprofit, I also know that there are many good organizations looking for volunteers. Money was a factor in the timing of my retirement. I waited until I thought my wife and I could maintain our current lifestyle and tried not to let “what ifs” affect my judgment too much.
InQ: How much did finances affect your decision to retire?
Tony: I wouldn’t have considered retirement before paying for my children’s college education. It’s probably a little too soon to tell if our financial analysis was correct—we haven’t run out of money yet!
InQ: How did your significant other react when you were exploring options other than the full-time practice of law? Did any tensions arise within your family?
Tony: My wife was very supportive—except when I suggested I could get a really good job if I went back to school for a doctorate! Ultimately, my wife had veto authority over many of the more significant career choices I made, but fortunately she never exercised it. I didn’t really experience any tensions, and I was fortunate in being able to phase out of full-time active practice. It was really a pretty easy transition.
InQ: You are only 56. How are you filling your new-found time?
Tony: I have a lot of interests that are now limited only by the threat of repetitive stress injuries. So far, I haven’t felt the need to find new hobbies to fill the time. At some point, I plan on doing something more productive, but right now I’m just relaxing and enjoying life.
InQ: What does your wife think of you playing all the time while she is still working? Has your share of the domestic chores increased?
Tony: She thinks I’m working from home. Just kidding. My wife retires in November. In the meantime, I’m doing most of the household chores and trying not to look like I’m enjoying myself too much.
Tony: I wouldn’t do anything differently.
InQ: How happy were you when practicing law full-time and how happy are you now?
Tony: For most of my career, I was very happy. The last few years, I was ready for something new. I’m very happy now. Change is good.