Not Becoming a Federal Judge Made One Attorney’s Career

Why missing a chance at being a federal judge was the best thing for Altec’s top lawyer

During his forty years in law, Rob Hunter has learned a thing or two about resilience. After decades in private practice, Hunter received a call he had hoped for his entire career.

The president was about to nominate him for a position as a federal judge.

The year was 1992, and the president was George H. W. Bush, who was months away from a tight election against a young governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. Hunter had been through more than a year of vetting and looked forward to the last step—approval from the US Congress—but it never came.

In a political twist that’s still timely in 2016, Congress never held hearings for the president’s fifty judiciary nominees. Instead, Bush’s nominations—including Hunter and John Roberts—expired when Clinton was elected.

“I sincerely wanted to serve as a judge, and I think I would have done a great job,” Hunter says, looking back.

A decade later, when George W. Bush became president, Hunter’s phone rang again. Did he want another shot at sitting on the bench?

“By that time, I had moved on, so I told them I’d had all the fun I could have with the experience,” Hunter remembers with a laugh. “I’m guessing they made the same call to John Roberts, and now he’s the chief justice of the [US] Supreme Court, so maybe that could have been me.”

Hunter says it was an experience he now looks back on with gratitude. “That was such a great disappointment, but the turn my career has taken has been so much better than I ever would have imagined,” he says.

The turn Hunter’s career took was to join Altec, a leading equipment and service provider in several markets, including electric utility and telecommunications, as its senior vice president and general counsel. Hunter joined the company in 1999, but he was part of Altec much earlier—he started representing the company as outside counsel in 1976.

Though he had been working with the company for more than twenty years, he says moving in-house was like joining the team. “At a law firm, the team is made up of lawyers all competing to be the best lawyer they can be. But in a business like this, we’re only good if everyone is good,” he says. “Everyone wants to make sure they are not the weakest player on the team; everyone wants to pull their fair share so everyone will benefit.”

“Set your goals and work toward them, but don’t be surprised if a better opportunity comes up and blindsides you. That was certainly the case for me.”

As senior vice president, he assumed responsibility for product and employee safety, which gave him the opportunity to prevent tragedies rather than being called after something terrible happened.

Since he joined the company, the number of incidents involving Altec products is 25 percent of what it was before his tenure, and worker’s compensation is down to one-fifth of what it was when he began. “Users of our products and our own employees aren’t getting hurt, people who would have been hurt before; that’s so important,” he says.

Aside from creating safer products, Hunter says he might have stumbled on the law firm of the future during his career. Hunter’s team includes only three lawyers and dozens of engineering experts. “When it comes to compliance with the law, engineers are probably in a better position to achieve compliance because they know what engineering it takes to get there,” he says. In the future, Hunter thinks more law firms will include non lawyers who help clients find solutions to problems—with the help of legal experts.

From a very young age, Hunter knew he wanted to work at the intersection of engineering and law. He remembers his father coming home from work at the Mississippi Power Company and saying that the company’s lawyers just didn’t understand what it was like to do his job. That’s why Hunter pursued a degree in mechanical engineering before going to law school. “It’s been tremendously helpful,” he says. “If I didn’t have an understanding of both areas, I don’t think I would be nearly as effective.”

After four decades in the profession, one of Hunter’s favorite activities is giving back to the next generation. He travels around the country ten times per year giving day-long seminars to Altec’s employees about legal basics,

“It’s such a fun experience,” he says. “It keeps me in touch with these brilliant young people who challenge me.”

At sixty-four years old, Hunter says he wants to keep working until he’s seventy, and even then he plans to keep teaching his course to younger employees. “This has been a great ride, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had,” he says.

Through it all, he never forgets the lesson he learned from his near brush with the federal bench. “Set your goals and work toward them, but don’t be surprised if a better opportunity comes up and blindsides you,” Hunter says. “That was certainly the case for me.”