The Road Less Taken: Mark Heinrichs on Forging a New Career
Changing careers can be challenging, to say the least. But with his Justice Center degrees as a starting point, Mark Heinrichs is laying the foundation for his dream job in the legal field—and his effort is paying off.
Friday, July 19, 2019
Have you ever contemplated a career change? It’s a big move for anybody—particularly if you’re more than a few years into your current career. It can be risky, intimidating and hard to even know where to start.
But Mark Heinrichs was up for the test. Heinrichs worked for decades in building maintenance before he realized it just wasn’t fulfilling anymore. “I wanted to be challenged intellectually,” he says. “I was ready to take on a significant challenge, with the goal of it becoming a career.”
Heinrichs knew the transition wouldn’t be easy. He asked himself questions that are probably familiar to anyone mulling a move like this: “How do you do it when you’re older and you don’t have any relevant work experience? How do you even apply for jobs?”
His answer to himself: Just take it step by step. Heinrichs started researching, planning and building a path forward—and that path started at UAA. He knew he wanted to enter the legal field, which had always interested him. So he enrolled in the Justice Center’s B.A. in Legal Studies and A.A.S. in Paralegal Studies programs.
Heinrichs is on track to finish both degrees in spring of 2020—and together, he says they give him the intellectual growth he’d been looking for. “What drew me to these programs was realizing that everything we do as members of society is governed by a legal system. “I knew that if I understood how that system works, I’d better understand how our society functions.”
But his degrees are about more than just philosophical exploration. Heinrichs saw how the practical skills he was learning began to open career prospects. “You’ve learned legal writing and legal research, you’ve read a bunch of cases. You’ve got a solid background in a broad set of skills,” he says. “Not everybody in the legal studies program goes to law school. People become paralegals, or clerks, or any number of other things.”
It was the “other things” category that Heinrichs pursued. His internship led him to the Federal Public Defender for the District of Alaska, where he was mentored by a criminal defense investigator—someone who conducts investigative research on behalf of attorneys who handle indigent federal criminal defense cases. It was the perfect fit. “This kind of position suits someone with a broad background,” he explains. “You need practical life experience in order to be good at it, and I have a lifetime’s worth of experience.”
Piece by piece, Heinrichs was laying the groundwork for a successful career change: intellectual engagement, a practical skill set and first-hand experience. Heinrichs continued volunteering at the public defender’s office after his internship ended, and that helped him land contract-based paralegal and investigative work on public defense cases. Now he’s expanding his professional network, building his reputation and working on even more cases—enough that it’s now sustainable as full-time employment. He’s become what he always had his sights on: a legal professional.
Heinrichs says the key was to keep focusing on that ultimate goal, no matter what. “Understanding what I was trying to do made all the difference,” he says. “I’ve put tons of time into it because I recognized that’s how I had to do this. But I’ve always known that if I set my mind to something I can accomplish it.”