It was a chilly Thursday afternoon in the first week of February, five minutes before 1 o’clock, when the email arrived.
The subject line: “Department of State Employment Offer for Ms. Florina Altshiler.”
Perhaps the State Department didn’t realize that Ms. Altshiler was already gainfully employed – impressively employed, really, for someone turning 34 that month – as the Buffalo boss for a New York City law firm.
Or perhaps the State Department didn’t care. That Uncle Sam poster doesn’t lie: When the government says “I want you!” it means it.
Altshiler had turned down the State Department once already. She applied in 2012 to become a diplomat (technically called a foreign service officer). But the process of tests and background checks and security clearances stretched so long that her first offer didn’t arrive until November 2015.
During that span of time, Altshiler moved from her hometown of New York City to Alaska, where she prosecuted sex crimes, and in 2014 moved to Buffalo. She was an attorney at Webster Szanyi LLP for nine months before joining the New York-based firm Russo & Toner LLP in August to open and manage its Buffalo satellite office, which now has five people.
She had a good job. She liked Buffalo. She had no prior connection here – not a friend, not a relative – but Altshiler was becoming rooted in the community. She bought two North Buffalo homes: one for $145,000 to renovate and live in; the other, purchased at city auction for $75,000, to rent out. She was making herself visible, showing her photography in art exhibits, writing for local publications and appearing in the media as a sex-crimes expert. (The News used her as a source in coverage of the investigations of hockey players Evander Kane and Patrick Kane.)
So, Altshiler declined that first job offer from the State Department. But here was America, calling again.
She opened the email:
“Dear Ms. Florina Altshiler,
“Congratulations on your decision to join the Foreign Service. We are pleased to welcome you into the ranks of the Service. You have chosen an exciting and challenging career that will allow you to represent the interests of the United States around the world.”
Well, that was loaded with certitude: “Congratulations on your decision. … ”
She hadn’t decided.
“You have chosen an exciting and challenging career. … ”
Exciting? Challenging? Perhaps it could become those things. But at first, so far as Altshiler knew, diplomats tend to spend their days interviewing visa applicants in countries that on a map often are the size of fingernail clippings.
She scrolled further into the email. The job offer was for $93,446. Not bad, but for a managing attorney, not great, either. Still, Altshiler isn’t a money chaser. If she were, she never would have left New York City after eight years in corporate law to become an assistant district attorney in Alaska.
Tempting job offer
She clicked the forward button on her email and sent it to an acquaintance with a one-word message: “Unrelenting.”
Still, Altshiler was astute enough not to immediately shut down the possibility. These diplomat gigs are a tough get. From the information she gleaned, no more than 3 percent to 5 percent of applicants get an offer. “They say it’s harder to get that job than to get into Harvard,” she said.
Plus, another declination would carry the weight of finality: Turn down State once and they may call again. Turn down State twice, and you won’t get a third offer – lest you start the arduous application process all over again.
So for the moment, Altshiler was keeping an open mind, which is her inclination, anyhow. That sense of openness and adventure is what transformed her view of the justice system, drives her artistic pursuits and is ultimately what led her to Buffalo.
“She’s a very interesting personality,” said Alan Russo, who hired Altshiler to open the firm’s Buffalo office. “She’s very intelligent, but she’s also self-assured, and she’s fearless.”
Altshiler, an only child, was born in the Ukraine in 1982 and lived in both Austria and Italy before her parents settled in Brooklyn in 1989. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a certificate in international studies from Binghamton University in just 2½ years, followed by her law degree from St. John’s University. Save for a semester studying at UCLA – she went there to escape the gray weather of Binghamton – most of her education happened in New York.
So, too, did the formative years of her career. Altshiler spent most of her first decade out of school practicing civil litigation and corporate law for firms in New York City. She had wanted to be a prosecutor, working for the government to pursue “truth and justice, and helping people.” But she chose private practice for the money.
After eight years, she realized that was the wrong choice at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. Altshiler, who loves to ski, swim, cycle and kayak, began to feel claustrophobic in New York City. She had a small apartment, no outdoor space, no parking (and she couldn’t afford a car, anyhow). The go-to place for a respite and fresh-air exercise, Central Park, was so people-packed that it felt like Times Square with grass. Looking ahead, Altshiler didn’t see any of that changing. Even when she earned more money, she’d still have an apartment with no outdoors space; she had friends in their mid-30s living with two or three roommates.
“I almost felt like I was pawning my self-respect to live like that,” Altshiler said.
So she decided to go.
In 2012, Altshiler applied for the diplomat job with the federal government and an assistant district attorney position with the state of Alaska.
North to Alaska
She was offered the Alaska job within a month. Altshiler took it and moved to the top-left corner of the continent. As an assistant D.A. based out of Anchorage, she was soon assigned to a sex-crimes unit that covers the entire state.
Altshiler was finally pursuing law not for the money, but for the greater good. Just as she long intended to do.
Except the reality wasn’t nearly so simplistic.
“I came in rosy-eyed, thinking the victims are just all very sympathetic, and they’ve been wronged and they need help,” Altshiler said. “It’s true that something bad happened to them and they do need help, but a lot of times they came with their own set of complications like serious alcohol abuse issues, substance-abuse issues, homelessness, complicated family situations.”
Altshiler was good at the job, winning more than 20 trials and losing just two. But the gray area weighed hard on her conscience. Once, after a two-week rape trial resulted in a guilty finding by the jury, Altshiler slipped into the bathroom and cried. She had done her job well, and the man convicted was facing a minimum of 25 years.
“I convinced these people that he did it,” Altshiler said, “and I don’t know if he did.”
She didn’t know whether the man was innocent, either. The details of exactly what happened were muddy. “It was a ‘he said-she said,’ and it’s a ‘she doesn’t even know what she said,’ because she wasn’t conscious. She was drunk. So it was just very” – Altshiler lets silence take over for a moment – “heavy.”
Altshiler’s Alaskan experience was saturated with irony. On the job, she dealt with shadows darker than the long Alaskan winter days. On her off time, she hiked, biked, skied and kayaked in a setting wrapped with storybook beauty. Altshiler captured it all – the glaciers, the mountains, the waterways – on camera. She began creating framed pieces of artwork that juxtaposed her photographs against dialogue that captured the often-harsh details of her sex-crime cases.
One of her tamer examples is a piece with a photograph of kayakers in rippling blue water, with a mountain and blanket of clouds kissing in the horizon. Below that image are the words from a post-testimony exchange Altshiler had with a 19-year-old woman:
Counsel (meaning Altshiler): “How did you get away from him?”
Victim: “My mom always taught me to wear two pairs of pants, it slows the rapists down.”
Eye for photography
Over the past year in Buffalo, Altshiler has found an audience for her art. She’s displayed her work at three shows, most recently with Main Street Gallery downtown. On a recent Friday happy hour, Altshiler was standing inside the door during the gallery’s opening. She was dressed to look very much like a lawyer unafraid to be hip (or an artist unafraid to be preppy). A table lined with glasses of orange juice was behind her. A couple towing a baby wandered in from Main Street.
“Tell me about your artwork,” said the woman.
“This tells the beautiful story of ugly Alaska,” Altshiler said. The soft traces of her Brooklyn accent suggested she wasn’t from Buffalo; the subject of her photography made clear she’s lived beyond here. “It looks really pretty, and it is really pretty, and it’s a gorgeous place to live. But below that surface … ”
Altshiler is always looking, thinking, projecting below the surface. On the surface, her New York City corporate-law career was a good one. Sending sexual predators to jail in Alaska was just. Serving as a diplomat would be prestigious.
But below all that? New York was stifling. Alaska was a can’t-win. And a foreign-service job would mean Altshiler’s giving up the opportunity to be the manager of a law office, leaving the home she purchased and renovated, and stepping away from a city where her voice – be it as a media analyst or an artist – can be heard.
When Altshiler talked to her boss Russo about the State Department job offer, he encouraged her to stay.
“This is an opportunity for you to put some roots down and create a career,” he recalled telling her. “She told me she’s ‘99-percent going to stay,’ whatever that means.”
Several weeks after that conversation, Russo found out what it meant: Altshiler was keeping options open until the end of February, when she officially declined the diplomatic appointment.
“It was very tempting, and not that easy to say no,” Altshiler said. But she’s quick to add: This isn’t a “never.”
“Ten or 20 years from now, if I decide it’s something I want to do,” she said, “I will be qualified to do it.”
So for now, Buffalo has Altshiler. For now.