Inside Track: Attorney is still reaching for the stars
After failing to become an astronaut, Martin Axelrod’s career trajectory has been anything but boring.
The faulty O-ring that caused the space shuttle Challenger to explode in 1986 stifled Martin Axelrod’s lifelong dream and changed his life forever.
Until the disaster, which took place during his junior year at Northwestern University, Axelrod had been on a path to become an astronaut. He was on a full-ride scholarship from the U.S. Air Force ROTC with a pre-med and math major, was class president, and already had been accepted into the Air Force’s space command program.
Following the disaster, NASA put the space shuttle program on indefinite hiatus, leaving Axelrod’s career aspirations in limbo.
“I had planned my whole life to do something pretty specific, and a faulty O-ring causes a tragedy where lots of lives are lost, and I realized I’m not going to do what I thought I was going to do,” Axelrod said.
“At that point, I started to figure out our plans don’t matter too much, and it’s not healthy to really plan things to such an nth degree. Ever since that time, I’ve gone the other way and I haven’t planned a thing.”
Now an attorney at Dykema in Grand Rapids, Axelrod has followed a wide spectrum of job opportunities. He’s owned a restaurant on the Chicago River, owned a marina, worked on a website during the dot-com boom, sold bonds, and was a vice president at Fifth Third Bank. His varied career following college began with a job at IBM based on a short interview while wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and khaki shorts.
Around spring break of Axelrod’s senior year, the Air Force told him there wasn’t enough money to take on all the cadets. He was one of two students to take a deal to serve in the active reserve for eight years, which turned into 10 years of inactive reserve — and still managed to have become a first lieutenant when his discharge letter arrived.
With the economy in such a poor state that not even the military was taking on new employees, Axelrod went to turn in his résumé at Northwestern’s career office. A classmate asked what happened to his Air Force plans, as two recruiters sat in the corner waiting to interview students. One was from financial firm Lehman Brothers and the other was from IBM.
They must have liked what they heard from the student body president and ROTC officer.
“My roommates were aggravated; they thought I was surrounded by a gold cloud,” he said. “First, I didn’t have to go into the Air Force and now I have two job offers. They’d been interviewing for positions for more than a year.”
He picked IBM based on the word “marketing” in the job title — not realizing the initial salary offered by Lehman Brothers likely would have been doubled based on bonuses.
“Heading into college, I was very regimented, serious and planned, and that’s just changed, and I’ve gone with intuition and opportunities,” Axelrod said. “I’m a big believer that opportunities swirl all around us.”
Near the end of a seven-year stint at IBM as he rose through management and saw his salary shrink without the benefit of commissioned sales, a friend offered an investment opportunity in a restaurant, and IBM offered him a two-year compensated “early retirement package.”
A hands-on learner, Axelrod dived in at the restaurant, where he happened upon two more career opportunities — one a bond salesman opportunity at ABN AMRO Bank, which he did for two years, and the other the opportunity to own Windy City Marine for five years.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule change made it impossible for Axelrod to continue to sell the main moneymaker at the marina — gasoline, so he jumped at an offer to help set up a financial education website for children — right as the dot-com bubble burst.
“If we could have kept it going a few years, life could have been different. You never know what fate has in store for you.”
After a short stint as a business development consultant for a software company, Axelrod received a phone call from his father, who was working for Fifth Third Bank and on the lookout for an employee with an MBA and a financial background.
Axelrod was hired by Fifth Third and moved to Grand Rapids to become a senior financial advisor. He then became part of the initial Wealth Management Advisor program launched by the bank.
At that point in time, Axelrod happened to drive by a billboard for Thomas M. Cooley Law School. At an open house, he learned if he did well enough on the LSAT, his law school degree would be paid for. IBM had already paid for his MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. He’s also a certified CFP and CFA — as well as a certified marine engine mechanic.
“Throughout all my career stops, I always wanted to know what the credentials are, what would make me better to clients, and is it feasible to distract myself from the work mission this week and to also dedicate some resources to make myself better for the long term?” Axelrod said. “I never intended on becoming an attorney.”
Sure enough, he scored well enough on the LSAT that his degree at Cooley would be paid for and he began taking night classes. During his first class, there was a discussion about writing a legal contract on a napkin. Axelrod asked a question about it, which the professor answered. The next week, a substitute professor told the class the original professor had brought the question to the department as he wasn’t satisfied with his answer, and the department couldn’t come to an agreement.
“This is the first case in textbooks about contracts, and I could ask a question that didn’t have an answer,” Axelrod said. “I really started getting high on this whole law thing.”
When the financial crisis of 2008 hit and, according to Axelrod, Fifth Third wasn’t too pleased with his law school endeavor, the two parted ways, and Axelrod became a full-time law student.
After several stints at Grand Rapids law firms as a summer associate, Axelrod was hired at Dykema once he received his law degree.
Dykema partner James Brady said Axelrod’s diverse background, bright mind and willingness to work hard made hiring him a no-brainer, despite him being nearly 50. Brady said he also offers a rare combination of business acumen applied to the law world.
“He has a lot of gumption, fortitude and family support,” Brady said. “He’s got a very diverse background, which is unique, and he’s been an academic star. I never had any hesitation.”
Starting at the bottom in a new career at age 50 — he’s making the most a new attorney can expect to make in Michigan but still significantly less than his previous careers — isn’t something most would be willing to do, but with solid family support and a desire to keep learning, Axelrod is OK with it.
He also doesn’t know where he’ll end up next, but he does know he’ll never regret the wild career ride he’s taken since his original plan to become an astronaut was derailed.
“Up until this point, every time I changed careers, I was at least at the level I would have been the whole time, but there’s no way to leapfrog in law,” Axelrod said. “I don’t know if I’ll retire as a partner at a law firm, or if I’ll take my legal, financial, sales and technology experience and go back to executive management. Worst case is I’ll change again and find another piece of myself — or, this is my ultimate spot, and it’s better to find that later than never.”