The road less traveled: Current, former Missouri lawyers apply their law degrees outside the courtroom
Vol. 77, No. 3 / May - June 2021
Nicole Roberts is assistant editor and communications coordinator at The Missouri Bar.
Shawn Askinosie had the legal career most lawyers strive for. He was a well-known, successful lawyer who, for two decades, was enamored with his job. Despite enjoying his career, a time came – a body, mind, and spirit recognition, as Askinosie says – when he realized he wanted to pursue a different passion. The catch? Askinosie did not have other passions or hobbies.
Feeling stuck, Askinosie did what any lawyer would do in that moment. He started pursuing activities he thought would help him find his next calling – scouring the internet, chatting with people, and researching potential jobs that fit his skill set.
“I approached that problem of not knowing what to do next as if it were another case,” he says. “So, in other words, I thought, ‘I will talk to everyone I need to talk to. I will find all the answers. I’ll research like crazy, and I’ll work really hard. Then I’ll know what I should do next.’ And it wasn’t happening.”
Askinosie eventually found his passion and new career path, though – making chocolate.
Out of the more than 30,000 licensed lawyers in Missouri, some are using their law degrees in non-stereotypical ways, from making award-winning sweets to hosting an Emmy-nominated TV courtroom show to writing a New York Times bestseller.
Have Your Lightbulb Moment
Before Askinosie pursued a career in chocolate making, he was a criminal defense lawyer in Springfield for almost 20 years. He graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1989.
For five years, Askinosie continued trying cases while praying God would guide him to his next career path. He says he battled depression and anxiety as part of the existential crisis.
“Lawyers feel stuck because if you take depositions all day long and you end up 15-20 years in and you don’t like it anymore, what are you going to do?” he says. “That can be a very discouraging place.”
After a health scare, Askinosie took up grilling as a hobby, eventually leading him to discover the art of making chocolate from cocoa beans, something that was not common in the United States at the time.
That was the “lightbulb moment,” Askinosie says.
Three months later, he traveled to the Amazon and studied how farmers grew and harvested cocoa beans. When he came back to Springfield, Askinosie wound down his case load. He sold his office building, bought a structure at 514 E. Commercial St. in Springfield, and acquired chocolate-making equipment.
Askinosie founded his business, Askinosie Chocolate, in 2006 and was operational in 2007.
Now, 14 years later, his company produces gourmet chocolate and sells it to 900 stores across the country. It was named one of America’s best small companies by Forbes in 2016, among other awards and recognitions, and has appeared in publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
While Askinosie is not in the courtroom regularly, he says he uses his law degree every day. It could be in overt situations, like reading a contract and navigating international commodity import laws, or more subtle ways, like creatively relaying marketing information.
One of the most important ways he uses his legal background is locating people who can help him in his business adventures, he says. As a criminal defense lawyer, Askinosie spent an abundance of time finding people and then, the most important part, talking to them. Now, he uses those skills to locate financial or business advisers, as well as farmers from the Philippines, Tanzania, Ecuador, and the Amazon.
“It’s a skill to find people and then to gain their trust and hopefully the chance to just talk,” he says. “I wasn’t intimidated by that, and I was able to talk to them and find them. I credit my work of preparing for cases as a direct kind of skill set that I use to this day.”
Put Pen to Paper
Ten minutes from Askinosie Chocolate, former lawyer Nancy Allen put pen to paper, writing her first book, “The Code of the Hills,” which was published in 2014. Now a New York Times best-selling author, Allen has published five legal thrillers, four as the sole writer and one as co-author with well-known author James Patterson. Allen and Patterson will release their second volume, which contains two full-length novels, in September, and Allen will release her eighth book in 2022.
Allen and Patterson’s book, “Juror #3,” became a No. 1 New York Times Best Seller. Allen giddily remembers when she received a fan letter from President Bill Clinton and television host Seth Meyers talked about the book on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Before her writing career took off, Allen was an instructor at Missouri State University for 16 years, focusing on business law classes. She retired from the university last year. Allen spent most of her legal career as an assistant prosecutor in the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office and assistant attorney general in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office branch in Springfield. She graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1980.
“When I was young, I thought people’s career paths were always going to be a straight line from A to Z. My path has been a line of twists and turns,” she says. “I really take great satisfaction in that because I have been able to do more than one thing that I enjoy and has given me tremendous satisfaction.”
While all her novels are fictional, Allen says she relies heavily on her experiences as a lawyer when writing her legal thrillers. Allen was in the first handful of women to enter the legal practice in southwest Missouri, and she was the only woman in the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office during her tenure. There, she prosecuted many violent offenses, particularly sex crimes.
Sex crimes were “some of the most terrible crimes” she worked on, Allen says, which is why she told herself for 30 years she would write a book about them. She says these crimes are “hidden behind a curtain,” and she wants to shed light on the difficult topic.
In addition to her experiences with handling sex crimes, Allen says the dozens of jury trials she tried in her career are invaluable because they equipped her to write about trials in an authentic way.
“I think people who have not tried cases before who try to write legal thrillers sound like phony baloney,” she says. “I think the reader picks up on whether the storyteller knows what they’re talking about or not.”
While Allen has successfully applied her law degree to her writings, she advised lawyers to remain aware of their situations. In her circumstance, for someone without a publishing background and who had zero contacts in the writing industry to go on to be a best-selling author is “improbable,” she says. Allen acknowledges she is “an exception, not the rule.”
Step Through the Door
Other lawyers are practicing in Missouri but also utilizing their law degrees through side opportunities.
Keith and Dana Cutler had been working at their family-owned law firm, James W. Tippin & Associates, for 27 years when they got a call from a casting company in 2016. The agency was scouting husband-and-wife lawyers to preside over a daytime courtroom TV show where couples experiencing relationship issues present their cases. Several Missouri lawyers recommended the Cutlers to the agency.
With a chuckle, Dana Cutler says she thought it was a prank at first. After some investigating and questioning, as well as considerations for what the opportunity would do to their clients, the couple agreed to audition for the show. The Cutlers were selected as the face of the TV program, “Couples Court with the Cutlers.”
The show is distributed by Orion Television, a subsidiary of MGM Television, and debuted in 2017. It has broadcast more than 350 episodes over three seasons and received two Daytime Emmy nominations for outstanding legal/courtroom program.
The Cutlers met their freshman year of undergrad and graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law in 1989. They’ve been together for 38 years and worked together for about 32.
The Cutlers say they are ecstatic they can use their law degrees and marriage experiences to offer skills and wisdom to other couples.
The show features familiar courtroom aspects like witnesses, experts, and forensic science, which the Cutlers use to make their determinations and decide on resolutions. Since the show is unscripted, the Cutlers rely on their skills as trial lawyers – particularly the art of thinking on their feet – to cross-examine parties, witnesses, and evidence.
“I would say our experience as attorneys definitely got us ready for unscripted – let’s see what you’ve got to say and be able to ask follow-up questions,” Dana Cutler says. “With our show, we don’t have to worry about rules of procedure or objections. We can do all this stuff we can’t do in trial, but I think we can work on our feet fast.”
If a lawyer wants to pursue something they love that is not traditional, Keith Cutler says, do it. If there is a passion, that passion has a regulation or a law and needs a lawyer, Dana Cutler adds.
The production of “Couples Court with the Cutlers” involves the work of lawyers on many levels – lawyers who handle financial contracts with vendors; review contracts between MGM Television and TV stations across the country; ensure the show meets Federal Communications Commission regulations; protect the show’s intellectual property; and handle employee rights.
“It’s like the greatest graduate degree ever because everything involves a law,” Dana Cutler says. “I think the beauty of our profession is that you can blend the profession with your passion.”
Regardless of career path, the Cutlers advise lawyers not to shrug off the unusual opportunities. If the Cutlers had not taken that leap, they would not be where they are today – and there certainly would not be two framed Emmy nominations hanging on a wall behind Keith Cutler’s desk.
“When the unusual door opens, whatever that might look like, don’t be afraid to step through it,” Dana Cutler says. “I think we have these images of what our lives should be. When a door opens and you think, ‘I can’t do that,’ you might be missing out on the greatest adventure ever.”
Help Voices Be Heard
Rep. Dean Plocher, the majority leader of the Missouri House of Representatives, understands that sometimes those unusual doors open at unexpected times. He currently utilizes his law degree to enhance his other passion – public service.
Plocher graduated from Saint Louis University School of Law in 1997 and worked at a small law firm before establishing his own practice in Clayton. He served as a municipal judge in the 21st judicial circuit in St. Louis County for a decade before assuming office in 2016 as the representative for state District 89, which covers parts of St. Louis County.
“While serving as a legislator is not the traditional view of what lawyers go to law school for, I don’t view it as being that far removed from what many do with their law degree ultimately or have in the past,” he says.
Plocher has sponsored and co-sponsored nearly 100 bills since taking office, according to the Missouri House of Representatives website. Those bills have covered a plethora of topics, including municipal court provisions, witness statements, general assembly term limits, financial protections for vulnerable populations, health care expansion, and sports wagering.
As one of the 19 lawyers in the House of Representatives, Plocher says a law degree is “valuable education” when writing and passing laws. A legislator must know how to read and write legislation, but also understand how laws impact state residents. The Republican representative credits his years as a municipal judge and lawyer for allowing him to look at legislation with a broader perspective.
“Having served as a lawyer, you can see the pitfalls for passing certain things,” he says. “The person that ran into this problem who wants the law changed sees it from that perspective, but they don’t see it from the broader perspective of how that has to be applied to everyone in the state of Missouri.”
Sometimes those Missourians seeking legislative change are also lawyers. As president of the Missouri NAACP and NAACP-Jefferson City Unit, Nimrod "Rod" Chapel Jr. routinely reviews legislation, chats with legislators, and participates in initiative petitions. Founder of Chapel Law Group, LLC, Chapel has also represented clients who protested legislation at the Missouri State Capitol.
Chapel says he believes having a law degree helps an individual understand the framework, implementation, and ramifications of proposed laws. For the last six years as Missouri NAACP president, Chapel assisted with a wide range of bills, including legislative ethic reform, Medicaid expansion, and agriculture legislation.
“Ultimately, [having a law degree] has been super helpful to be able to communicate with some of our lawyer-legislators and other governing bodies, like police forces, to talk about inequities and what we can do to behave a little better,” says Chapel, who graduated from Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1995.
When drafting legislation, Plocher says, being openminded is key since legislators must work with various people, including peers from both parties, stakeholders, and constituents.
That skill even goes beyond the Missouri State Capitol Building.
Law school teaches individuals to “not have blinders on,” says Collin Brink, a communications professor at Central Methodist University. Brink regularly uses that skill to better explain complex topics, like media law or government, to his classes.
“I try to take that into the classroom and try to promote looking at issues or a problem from all different angles and aspects, to really break it down and find a solution,” says Brink, who graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 2004 and managed his own practice for a short period.
Fight for Social Justice
In addition to paid roles, lawyers can use their knowledge and experiences to help others on a voluntary basis. While he is a practicing lawyer, Chapel’s roles at the Missouri NAACP and NAACP-Jefferson City Unit are voluntary. Instead of representing clients for the Missouri NAACP, he uses his law degree to provide guidance and locate appropriate resources for individuals.
Likewise, Askinosie links his time in law to his passion for social issues and improving access to justice. After founding his company, he created Chocolate University, an experience that has inspired hundreds of young people to learn how small businesses can help solve world issues. Through Chocolate University, students learn about entrepreneurship and work with communities in Tanzania.
Chapel encourages lawyers to help individuals and organizations create messages that are grounded by law, allowing citizens to voice their opinions – and be heard.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people who need access to the courts, access to institutions, people that a lawyer or a person with a law degree can open the doors for, not necessarily in representation,” he says.
Value Your Bar Membership
Regardless of the career path, active and inactive lawyers alike recommend those considering non-traditional legal fields continue their memberships with The Missouri Bar, which offers continuing education opportunities, publications, access to research systems, management advice, and more.
It is the professional responsibility of lawyers to be part of an organized bar since it ensures the profession runs smoothly, Keith Cutler says.
In addition, networking is the most valuable opportunity state and local bars offer since it allows lawyers to connect and brainstorm, the Cutlers say. Bar work helped jump-started the Cutlers’ careers as TV courtroom judges. At least one Missouri lawyer who knew the Cutlers through the state and local bars recommended the casting company contact the couple for the show.
Dana Cutler has served in several leadership roles with the state and local bars, including as president of The Missouri Bar. Keith Cutler has served in several leadership roles with the state and local bars, as well as frequently presented at CLE programs.
“I’m not saying that being in the bar will get you a nationally syndicated TV show, but it definitely was a stepping-stone for us,” Dana Cutler says. “I know that being an active member in The Missouri Bar and my local bar has made me a better attorney.”
Chapel, who previously served on The Missouri Bar Board of Governors, says the organization helps him learn about innovative ways to improve the industry and give back to communities. Others, like Brink and Askinosie, keep their memberships active for flexibility, giving them the option to step back into the legal field if necessary.
Since he worked long and hard in law school and as a lawyer, Askinosie adds, he keeps his license active as an honor to the work he did.
While Allen is no longer an active lawyer with The Missouri Bar, she credits her time as a member to her success as an author.
“If it had not been for those years in that law practice as a member of The Missouri Bar, I would not have the career I have today,” she says.
Discover Your Broken Heart
Looking back on the long road Askinosie had when transitioning from a popular criminal defense lawyer to a successful chocolate maker and business owner, he says he is grateful. Askinosie knows there are lawyers who feel stuck and are looking for new callings, which is why he and his daughter, Lawren Askinosie, wrote a book: “Meaningful Work: A Quest to do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul.”
Askinosie says he was a “brokenhearted lawyer,” but that heartbreak ultimately led to his second successful career – as a chocolate maker.
“Broken hearts are not fun. They’re uncomfortable and painful, and they come with suffering,” he says. “But in my experience, there can be a tremendous amount of creativity and joy even when we can explore our own broken hearts. I’m very grateful for the opportunity, and, in fact, I’m pretty sure I would not be the chocolate maker I am today but for my career in law.”
1 Nicole Roberts is assistant editor and communications coordinator at The Missouri Bar.