Ethically Ambitious: Life Lessons from a Harvard Trained Lawyer and Lifelong Climber
By: Tom Bussen
It is 2014, and Shaun McElhatton stands atop a mountain in the province of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, a country best known perhaps for its place along the historic Silk Road. It is cold out, but this is nothing new for Shaun. Shaun still suffers the lasting effects of repeated frost bite received during his 27 months in country. “Winters in Naryn are tough,” Shaun recalls. “My first year it never got above about 40 something degrees inside the whole winter. So that was kind of miserable.”.
Shaun is 7,000 feet above sea level and 6,000 miles away from his home in Minnesota. It is just another day in the Peace Corps for Shaun, who along with 50 or so other volunteers earns about $10 per day while serving in one of the remotest and coldest parts of a remote and cold country. And while most of his Peace Corps colleagues are early 20-somethings, many fresh out of college, Shaun is in 2014 a professionally experienced 56 years old.
The mountains of a remote Central Asian republic might sound like rock bottom. But Shaun isn’t a recovering alcoholic, he isn’t running from some messy divorce, or professional setback. To the contrary, Shaun left his Minnesota home at the height of success: a Harvard trained lawyer, a partner in a prestigious law firm named the “go to” lawyer for developers and investors.
Shaun surveys the snow covered horizon, sees the small town he calls home far below. His mind flashes to the wood paneled boardrooms and sun lapped law offices where he made a career. He can’t help but wonder – how did I get here?
This is the story of Shaun McElhatton. It is a story of ethical ambition, of one man’s relentless climb to advance the cause of others. It is a story of responsibility, in which vast opportunity is, unusually, not seen simply as a ticket to self-advancement. It is a story of communality expressed at a global level. And it is the story of a man that made good on a decades old promise to himself.
A Rising Star: Community and Ethical Ambition
Shaun grew up poor. His father “left and never came back” when Shaun was just five years old, and his “super hard working” mother would keep afloat her family of eight with the aid of food stamps and the support of a tight knit, Roman Catholic community.
This upbringing imbued in Shaun a sense of resilience, a sense that he would have to work hard for everything he wanted. “I learned at a pretty young age, you got to make your own way in life,” Shaun says. But in addition, Shaun gained a sense of appreciation for the value of community. “Growing up, community was important, and service, giving back to community, was a big thing.”
It was this rare combination of ethically grounded ambition that would lead Shaun to see opportunity as responsibility, to see the many gilded doors that a Harvard law degree had opened and to ask himself how he could bring others through those doors with him. “You know, I’ve been very fortunate in life,” Shaun said, explaining that he saw law as an opportunity to give back to the communities that had been so instrumental to his upbringing.
“I actually went to law school intending to be a legal aid lawyer and I clerked for legal aid my first summer and just decided that that wasn’t what I wanted to do.” “What I found was, a lot of my clients, their problems weren’t legal problems. They were economic problems, there were health problems, and they were seeking a legal solution. But it didn’t really feel productive.”
After taking some time off to support his wife’s entry into graduate school, “I worked for a union-side labor law firm. That was my next idea, that I’d be a union labor lawyer, and that didn’t really pan out either,” Shaun laughs. “I consider myself a working person, and what I found out is that the unions are fucking over the workers as much as the management is.”
This could have been a turning point for Shaun. The moment when he told himself that the world is corrupt and beyond help, and when he excused himself to pursue his own interests without fetter. But Shaun is a climber. He had climbed out of a childhood of scarcity, he had grinded his way through law school, and he was not about to stop climbing now.
So he did what any farsighted climber would do in this situation. He quit. Again.
“But my third idea was kind of a community development attorney, doing affordable housing. And that stuck and provided me a really rewarding career. The more I did the more I liked it.”
Shaun would stay at the firm of Leonard Street and Deinard for 26 years. He would earn a small fortune and gain recognition as one of the Twin cities’ leading lawyers, but along the way he worked to advance affordable housing with his clients including for profit and not for profit community development organizations. This would not have been possible without the support of his law firm, which was one of the most progressive firms in the nation.
Shaun explains that after his first child was born in his final year of law school, he held out for a legal position where he could work 75 percent time. In the ultra-competitive legal industry, this was, to put it mildly, an unusual ask. And in fact, Shaun says, “I only interviewed if firms had part-time policies, and there were at least a half a dozen interviews where I ask about part-time policies and you could tell that their demeanor completely changed. The interview was effectively over because I’d asked the question.”
But at Leonard Street and Deinard, Shaun found a home, a place that was accepting of what Shaun calls this “kind of alternative lifestyle.” This was a place, Shaun explained, that hired the first female attorney “probably two decades before any other firm hired any female attorney,” and which was a refuge for Jewish lawyers ostracized from practicing elsewhere. It was a place that at one time was the only law firm in the country operating a pro bono legal aid clinic based in the poor urban neighborhood that it serves. And so it was also a place that allowed Shaun to carve out a practice that focused on the needs of the needy. Looking back, Shaun says, “I feel tremendous satisfaction driving around the Twin Cities and seeing the projects that I worked on, and I’m very proud of the work that I did as an attorney.”
Shaun’s experience of relentlessly searching for the job that would give him meaning is not unique. In a study by Stephen Levitt made popular in the book Freakonomics, the University of Chicago economist sought participants that remained undecided whether to quit or stay in their jobs (or make other major life changes). Levitt asked them to participate in a virtual coin flip, in which those that got heads were asked to quit, while those that got tails stayed. Levitt then followed up two months and six months later. He found that those that had quit their jobs or otherwise made a major life change, simply on the basis of a chance coin flip, were substantially happier than those that had stuck with the status quo.
As Shaun puts it, “if you’re in a situation that’s not working, get out.”
Climbing in the Mountains.
By 50, Shaun was back to his old tricks: he quit his job. Hungry to find new ways to be of service and ready for a new challenge, he made that most unusual of leaps from law firm partner to Peace Corps volunteer. Shaun explained, “Peace Corps didn’t have a big presence in my college, but I’ve met a lot of interesting people who’d been in Peace Corps. You know, it’s my tribe. There’s something about Peace Corps people. At the same time, I was a little bored at work, and looking for a different kind of challenge.”
He continued, “Do you really need to be doing this for 30, 40, 50 years, and there’s other people that are dying to do the job? Having enough money to be comfortable, not to worry about it, is a big deal. But most of us in the United States get to a point where we’re beyond that. And then it’s what kind of juice are you getting out of the work you’re doing? Are you happy going to work? And people don’t think about that. I think a lot of people think ‘I’ll keep making more money. I’ll get the new car and that’s what it’s all about.’ But that’s not what it’s all about. There’s a lot of unhappy lawyers. And a lot of unhappy rich people.”
This is how Shaun would find himself in a small, former Soviet nation on the other side of the world. Socrates said “I am a citizen of the world”, a perspective which Shaun seems to share despite his close association with, and work in support of, the Twin Cities. “I feel like as an American, certainly there’s a lot of Americans who are disadvantaged. But we consume so much of the world’s resources, we have so many opportunities, and there are so many places in Kyrgyzstan where it’s a lot tougher.”
Shaun’s professional status meant he likely could have asked for any Peace Corps assignment he wanted. He could have asked for a cushy position in the capital city, or a position at a prominent university. But Shaun didn’t do that. Instead, he accepted a position in the mountains of Naryn City, population 40,000, which even in the gritty world of Peace Corps is known as something of a hardship post.
Shaun explained it this way: “When I was in Peace Corps, my goal was really to give back, and I feel really lucky to have had the opportunities that I had in life. And I know there are a lot of people, especially outside the US, who don’t have that. So my attitude was, ‘I’ll go anywhere and do anything’. I was hoping to make a difference and do the best I could. And it worked out great.”
In his legal practice, “One of the things that I try to do in my practice is be nice to everyone. And not just people who supervise me, but everybody,” Shaun emphasized. Now, he would take this mentality to his new home, whether it was while socializing with the 20 something Peace Corps volunteers that were onboarding with him, or the local Kyrgyz citizens that saw Shaun as something rather alien.
He walked the streets of his new town, a place where a Harvard lawyer was practically a myth. “You’re sort of a freak … I’m a tall white guy, so even after two years of walking around – and I walked a lot – people will stare at you still. You’re kind of a freak. [But] “I was really touched by how I was accepted by everyone. People, they were just nice.”
Beyond bouts of frostbite, loss of income, separation from family, what did Shaun get out of all this? The way Shaun tells it, he got everything. “It makes you feel good, you know? That’s something that I knew before, but after being in the Peace Corps, helping other people makes me feel good.”
And he got all of this by relentlessly staying true to his vision of communal service. As University of Pennsylvania Psychologist Angela Duckworth explains, “dogged perseverance towards a top level goal requires, paradoxically, some flexibility at lower levels in the goal hierarchy. It’s as if the highest level goal gets written in ink – and the lower level goals get written in pencil, so you can revise them and sometimes erase them altogether, and then figure out new ones to take their place.”
In 2016, Shaun returned to Minnesota. As he promised himself all those years before, he didn’t return to his old law firm but instead took a position as senior legal counsel for a nonprofit housing organization, which he held until late 2019.
Unsurprisingly, Shaun doesn’t think he’s the hero of this story. “I thought about this a lot when I was in the Peace Corps. I had had a rewarding career and a healthy family and plenty of money in the bank so it was an easy choice for me to make.” Plus, “I was in pretty good shape physically, so I was able to enjoy trekking in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, which is an amazing experience.” Today, this ethically ambitious climber’s LinkedIn profile describes him, appropriately enough, as an “adventurer”.
 Duckworth, A., & Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance (Vol. 234). New York, NY: Scribner.