Lawrence Kurlander '64: Looks Back on Three Careers (and Counting)
Ithaca, NEW YORK, 2015
Lawrence Kurlander’s first weeks at Cornell Law School were not without some trepidation. Surrounded by classmates from Ivy League universities, this graduate of small liberal arts school Alfred University feared that he wouldn’t be able to hold his own. It turns out he had nothing to worry about.
“Once I got into the rhythm, I really had a great experience,” says Kurlander, adding that spending weekends with his wife, who was finishing her own degree at Alfred, helped him through the transition. He recalls a legal education both very broad and deep, one that unfolded not only in the classroom but also, for instance, during the brown-bag lunches he shared with classmates as they debated cases.
Kurlander was especially influenced by two faculty members. Professor Rudolph Schlesinger he remembers not for any particular class or assignment but for his approach. “His impact was in the way he looked at things,” says Kurlander. “There was such enormous integrity in everything the guy did.”
Then there was Professor David Curtiss, who taught criminal law and who was instrumental in helping Kurlander land an internship in the Manhattan district attorney’s office between his second and third years of law school—crucial preparation for a position he would pursue, and win, years later. He remarks, “I’m eternally grateful to Professor Curtiss for the opportunity.”
It is not only the professors he knew fifty years ago who have endeared the Law School to Kurlander, but also someone he just met: Eduardo M. Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law. “The new dean has really captured my imagination,” he says. “He has rejuvenated my interest in Cornell.”
Kurlander credits the Law School with allowing him to have three separate careers. The first, spanning about eleven years, was as a practicing attorney in Rochester, New York. During this time, he became partner in a small law firm, where he dealt mostly with civil litigation and business law.
In 1975, his second career began when he was asked to run for district attorney of Monroe County. Noting that he was a Democrat running for an office that no Democrat had ever held, Kurlander says, “No one in their right mind would’ve thought I would win.” Against the odds, he did.
Kurlander’s time as DA was characterized by innovation. His office was the first in the country to aggressively prosecute drunk driving, a move that met with great resistance from the legal community. Critics argued that the approach would overwhelm the system. Contrary to these fears, the policy “was enormously successful,” says Kurlander. “Now it’s taken for granted all over the country, and deaths from drunk driving have plummeted.”
He broke from the status quo in other ways as well, including through his attention to gender diversity. When he was elected, Monroe County had never had a female assistant district attorney. By the time he left, the office employed eleven. “And they went on to do great things,” he observes, noting that all had distinguished careers, including one who became presiding judge of the county court. Among these and other accomplishments, says Kurlander, “perhaps the thing I’m most proud of is that we removed politics from the district attorney’s office.”
Kurlander stepped down in 1981, adhering to a campaign promise to serve only two terms. This was not the end of his career in criminal justice, however. When Mario Cuomo was elected governor of New York in 1982, his first appointment, to the newly created position of director of criminal justice, was Lawrence Kurlander.
Kurlander recalls that the greatest challenge of his five-year tenure in the position came just eight days after he had begun, when a major prison riot broke out at Sing Sing. “Nobody remembers that prison riot, because we handled it very differently from the  Attica prison riot,” he says. Following the resolution of the incident, he spent the next year and a half writing a report that became a model analysis of prison riots and their causes.
The end of Kurlander’s time as director of criminal justice marked the beginning of his third career, as a corporate executive. From 1987 to 2002, he served as a senior executive first at American Express, then at RJR Nabisco, and finally at the Newmont Company. A major interest of Kurlander’s during this time was corporate responsibility, in particular the “social license” a company receives from the communities where it operates.
Overlapping this corporate career was a diplomatic one. Kurlander was appointed by both President Clinton and President George W. Bush as honorary consul to Uzbekistan, serving in the position for twelve years.
In 2002, Kurlander retired from Newmont. “I promptly discovered,” he says, “that I had failed retirement.” During the roughly twelve years of “retirement” he’s enjoyed so far, he has cofounded and helped to run three businesses and, along with five other volunteers, spent six years establishing a highly regarded hospital in an underserved community in rural Georgia. With his interest in his alma mater reignited, he also plans to increase his involvement with Cornell in the years ahead.
“I’ve really been blessed,” says Kurlander, reflecting on the highlights of his career, the people he has met, and his close-knit family, including wife Carol, three children, and eight grandchildren. “It’s just been a great trip.”