If you are an idealist, you have to believe that your work is doing good.

I was a criminal prosecutor when I started my career. This was in Philadelphia, not suburban Connecticut, so the bad guys were really bad guys.  Murders, rapists, armed robbers and other terrible types.  If you have seen movies, you likely have some view that there is a sizable percentage of innocent people who are framed by policemen and then prosecuted by ruthless District Attorney’s Offices.  Maybe this happens in places where racism is still rampant but I assure you that in 1990s Philadelphia the accused criminals I saw were terrible people. 

Nonetheless, while I thought the work of our office was highly honorable, I knew I wanted to head into something different. Moreover, I was a newlywed and my wife and I wanted to move back to Washington, DC where we met.  So, I began working as a “white collar” prosecutor.  White collar criminals are thieves of a different sort.  They worked at places like Enron and other business entities.  They did not use force to steal and cheat. But, they were as guilty of taking money or breaking laws as those that I saw back in Philadelphia.

The normal career path for white collar prosecutors is to head to the private sector and defend white collar criminals.  The pay is as much as three to five times what a federal prosecutor makes.  White collar criminal defense is also a lot more interesting than other types of big city, big firm law where work such as “reinsurance” (insurance for insurers) dominates. 

The thought of doing interesting work while making $200-$300,000 (and much more for some) is highly tempting.  Through a well placed college connection, I met “Phil” a great guy who was doing such work.  Phil was a bit older than me but I remember him because his wife had run a non-profit designed to tutor underprivileged kids in DC and I was one of the tutors while in college.  

Phil had spoken to us at one meeting because he was an Assistant US Attorney at the time (federal prosecutor).  As I got to know Phil, I felt comfortable enough to ask him about how he made the transition to white collar defense. He was having children and needed to make more money.  And, then he started giving me a line I heard before… “everyone needs a defense.  America is built on the right to legal representation….”  Phil seemed to be an authentic guy but I could hear in his voice that he didn’t fully buy into that line of thinking.  After all, his clients were multi-millionaires who earned some of their millions through bad behavior.  He wasn’t defending writers who were Communists in the 1950s or some other type of genuinely sympathetic defendant.  

I was fortunate in that I found my calling as an education-entrepreneur.  I couldn’t do what Phil did because I am too idealistic.  To be clear, I don’t claim to be a better person than Phil.  He still is a great guy and recently won an award from my college for his charitable activities.  But, I knew that I had to be involved in a career where I believed I was doing good.  If you have the same blessing/curse, then, trust me, head toward the light.  That’s the only way you’ll find career satisfaction.