Florida man trades in his hard-hat for a briefcase, becomes an attorney at 60
'Becoming an attorney was always a childhood dream of mine. My cousin was a Wall Street financial attorney, and when I turned 13, he gave me a leather-bound legal guide. I fell in love with it and always wanted to be a lawyer. Now I’m living my childhood dream'
Losing a job can be a traumatic experience for any worker. Aside from the financial impact, it may also affect self-esteem. For some, a layoff means reassessing professional goals while searching for employment. In contrast, others prefer to rebrand themselves entirely by returning to school to pursue a different career path.
Florida Bar member Phillip Burke chose the latter following his layoff, chasing his dream of becoming an attorney. What makes Burke’s story so remarkable is that he changed career paths, not in his 20s or 30s, but his mid-50s following a 33-year career in the construction industry.
“I was the superintendent of cabinet projects for the largest cabinet company in Florida,” Burke said. “When the housing market crashed in 2007, many of us were let go.”
Burke, who dropped out of college in 1974 following two years of undergraduate study at the University of Oregon, began his first career working on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System before moving to Florida.
“At 19-20, I felt college wasn’t for me. But to be honest, I just wasn’t ready for it,” Burke said.
Following the subprime mortgage crisis, construction jobs were scarce, and Burke felt it was time to give college another try. He returned to class at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, intending to go to law school.
“Becoming an attorney was always a childhood dream of mine. My cousin was a Wall Street financial attorney, and when I turned 13, he gave me a leather-bound legal guide. I fell in love with it and always wanted to be a lawyer. Now I’m living my childhood dream,” Burke said.
Following a bachelor’s degree in political science from FAU, Burke was accepted into the Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando. He said the grind of going through law school could not have been possible without the encouragement of his wife, Patti. The two have been married for nearly 40 years.
“She stood by me throughout the entire process, and I couldn’t have done it without her,” Burke said.
Patti, a Renaissance woman in her own right, went back to school in her 30s to pursue a nursing degree.
Aside from Patti’s encouragement, Burke said another significant factor in his decision to return to school was the affordability of public higher education in Florida.
“You don’t need to spend a lot of money to go back to school and chase down your dreams. There are so many good public options in Florida.”
Data from the Florida State University System backs up Burke’s assessment. Florida’s system reports that the average cost of earning a four-year bachelor’s degree is the “2nd lowest in-state tuition for public 4-year institutions in the nation.” More importantly, Burke’s alma mater, FAMU Law, is the most affordable of the system’s four law schools at $11,070 per year for Florida residents, according to the State University System.
When Burke started law school, he said his biggest obstacle was keeping up with the younger, more traditional 20-something law students.
“Staying up to speed with not just the technology but the other kids who were going to school with me was a big challenge,” Burke said.
Despite those challenges, Burke said the younger students were very inviting.
“There were some older students that were closer to my age, but most of the younger ones were totally great and accepting of me. I keep in contact with many of my classmates, and I’ve made lifelong friends who just happen to be the same age as my son,” Burke said.
Burke earned his JD in 2014 at the spry age of 60. Since then, he’s been practicing law with the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel for the Fourth District Court of Appeal region.
The office is a state agency that functions as a public law firm for indigent persons entitled to counsel in a wide array of cases. The two main areas of practice are criminal defense and dependency.
“Working for the state, you don’t make the great money you associate with being a lawyer, but you do get to help a lot more people, and that’s very rewarding for me.”
His answer was simple when asked what advice he had for other older people looking to make a career change.
“Go for it! I’m not an exceptional person, but I got it done. It can be done!”