Fresh out of law school, Lawrence Kurlander ’64 jump-started his career as an attorney, joining a small private practice in Rochester, where he specialized in litigating negligence and medical malpractice. Eleven years later, he ran for Monroe County district attorney, a race no one thought a Democrat could win—and won, launching his second career in government service. Those next twelve years, including five as New York State’s first director of criminal justice, sparked a new interest in corporate responsibility, which led to his third career in business, with leadership positions at three Fortune 500 companies.
“Looking at my career, there are two possible conclusions you could draw,” said Kurlander, opening a talk on “Serving the Public: Gaining Satisfaction from a Diverse Career” on October 21. “The first is, ‘Wow, this guy has had the most wonderful career, moving across very diverse fields.’ And the second is, ‘Wow, this guy could not hold a job.’”
Kurlander wasn’t sure which version came closest to the truth, but he was clear about the core principles at the heart of each phase of his career: integrity, loyalty, trust, and excellence.
“Before you embark on your career, you have to define your set of values,” he advised the audience of students and faculty members in 182 Myron Taylor Hall. “As you’ll hear, more than once in my career, I was called upon to make some very tough choices.”
In 1976, as the Monroe County district attorney, he vacated the sentences of Rochester’s mob hierarchy, who had been convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence. In 1983, on the eighth day of his tenure overseeing New York State’s criminal justice system—and Mario Cuomo’s second week as governor—Kurlander helped resolve a hostage crisis at Ossining Correctional Facility without any loss of life. In 2001, as chief administrative officer of Newmont Mining, then the world’s largest producers of gold, he launched a wide-ranging investigation into the company’s own environmental record, acting on a request by senior company officers.
None were easy decisions, but all relied on those core values, which guided him as a young DA who refused to plea bargain drunk driving offenses, a senior executive at American Express and RJR Nabisco, and the honorary consul general for the Republic of Uzbekistan. Still preferring work to rest, in the twelve years since retiring, Kurlander has co-founded three businesses, helped establish a hospital in rural Georgia, and rekindled his connections to Cornell Law.
“‘Never boring,’” said Kurlander, naming the two words he’d like written on his tombstone, before passing on one more piece of advice: “By the time you graduate from this law school, you’re going to have so many opportunities, it will be mind boggling. I’ve always tried to do different things, and I can tell you, if you ever have the chance to work in public service, take it. Nothing you do will ever be as rewarding.”