October 23, 2012

Career Moves Snapshot: Rudy Engholm

Law Practice Magazine

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Midlife Career Transitions

Advice for the restless from lawyers who have reimagined and retooled their careers.

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October/November 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 7 | Page 41

Midlife Career Transistions

Career Moves Snapshot: Rudy Engholm

FORMERLY: A Hartford, Connecticut, Lawyer and General Counsel in Ann Arbor.
NOW: Executive Director of Lighthawk, a nonprofit nationwide environmental flying organization.


Rudy Engholm’s life has had some atypical twists, beginning with spending his childhood in Japan. Then moving through what he calls “many phases” in his adulthood, he attended law school, worked as an associate in a law firm, became an avid airplane pilot, was vice president and general counsel of a software company, and now is living his dream by combining his passions for environmentalism, wilderness preservation and flying in the job of a lifetime.

After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1978, Engholm went to work with a law firm in Connecticut, where he soon came to the realization that, although he liked the people in the firm, he “hated billable hours and didn’t believe in the adversarial system,” he says. That got him considering something other than a career in the law firm life. He had an undergraduate degree in engineering and an early understanding of the legal technology arena, so in 1981 he decided to get into the software business. He moved back to Ann Arbor to join a company called Creative Solutions, where he became vice president and general counsel. He was responsible for all manner of managerial duties, including overseeing the company’s legal matters.

Then one day in 1989 Engholm told his partners that, within 20 months, he was going to “fire himself” and move to the coast of Maine to start a new life. With an ever-growing commitment to environmental and conservation causes, he explained to his partners that he wanted to live closer to the wilderness, work for an environmental organization and do more flying. He has since accomplished all those goals—and also added a few more to the list.

Once in Maine, Engholm did volunteer flying work for the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups and became involved in a group called Restore the North Woods, whose mission was to create a North Woods National Park in New England. He also formed an organization called Northern Wings in the mid-’90s, to mobilize pilots to fly for volunteer groups. He divided his time between working with environmental organizations and doing active stock trading using mathematical models—or, as he puts it, living “off the grid.”

Then in 2003 he merged his organization into LightHawk. To top things off, he recently became its executive director. As described on its Web site, “LightHawk is today the largest and oldest volunteer-based environmental aviation organization on the planet. It grew from one pilot’s conviction that we can change hearts and minds by letting the earth speak for itself. LightHawk mobilizes qualified pilots who volunteer their flying and their aircraft to get key environmental decision makers into the air to see and hear what the land has to say.”

It’s quite a leap from working in a law firm two decades ago. What lead him on this path? He confesses that he “wants to have adventure all my life, both in front of me and behind.” Here’s his advice to others considering career moves: “Be prepared to unhook from the security system that exists in law firms.” His view is that if you follow your passion, you will find something to make a living at and have a great time in the process. Speaking of the spirit of adventure and passion, when he was interviewed for this article, Engholm was three days away from flying his own small plane across the Atlantic to Scotland.

— By K. William Gibson

About the Author

K. William Gibson is an attorney, arbitrator and mediator in Clackamas, OR.  A member of Law Practice’s Editorial Board, he also authors the magazine’s award-winning “Ask Bill” column.