He’s already had several careers and he’s only six years out of law school.
For Justin Buell ‘09, his legal ambitions were always tied to other goals. After majoring in political science at Santa Clara University, he worked at director level on the campaigns of presidential candidate John Kerry and California gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly. After getting his J.D. at UC Hastings, Buell established his own consultancy, Buell Private Political Management.
He spent several years working in high levels of development for political organizations and advising families in the Bay area about fundraising and donations. The rules for political donations are complex, and often family foundations needed assistance navigating them. Buell said that this was his boom time. “Everything was great and going really well, business was really good, I was making a bunch of money, living in a four bedroom in Pacific Heights with my wife and two kids. Everything looked good on paper,” he said.
But he recalled that the deeper he got into the money side of politics, the worse he began to feel. “There are so many flaws in the political system, where did it go wrong?” he asked himself. “When you’re only dealing with money, it becomes very transactional, like a dark world. I saw that bad behavior is rewarded in politics. People would come to me and ask me if I was the guy to talk to if they wanted to ‘buy’ an ambassadorship. ”
Buell said that he was then motivated to give a percentage of his businesses gross income to the Sunlight foundation, which promotes political transparency. “But I didn’t see the system improving, and I didn’t want to be immersed in it anymore,” he said. His life seemed like a San Francisco version of “House of Cards.” “The only way to fix this problem is to amend the constitution and get money out of politics,” Buell said.
Meanwhile Buell had been pursuing his passion for photography, a skill he had picked up as a teenager. He would shoot weddings and portraits of children, and loved it. His wife, an interior designer, helped him recognize that he would be much happier working in that creative field. She was right. “The thing I am really drawn to is truth. With my photography, I try to show what is this person about, what is their story. In politics there is not a lot of truth,” he said. So Buell quit his position and his family made a bold move -- to a two bedroom house in Larkspur -- and started taking care of the kids while working on his photography portfolio.
Now Justin Buell has done that quintessential Bay area "pivot," and is incorporated as a photography business. He assists on shoots for publications like GQ, The Wall Street Journal, Air France Magazine and Universal Pictures, and works with his own clients. This feels like his true calling, and Buell is much happier. His legal training comes in handy only occasionally.
“The best thing about law school is that you’re never afraid of lawyers for the rest of your life. I found that immensely helpful in any business. I would say that that alone was confidence building,” he said.