The milestones of a legal career are often underscored by the core values that guide one’s everyday decisions and client relationships. And sometimes, fate swoops in with a nudge you didn’t know you needed. Dmitriy Shakhnevich is an attorney whose career trajectory embodies resilience, versatility and a deep commitment to justice. Navigating through the unpredictable waves of the legal profession, Shakhnevich went from an aspiring prosecutor in Brooklyn to establishing a successful private practice in the heart of New York City.

Working as a private practitioner has afforded Shakhnevich the opportunity to find and nurture various passions and side hustles, including teaching, writing and podcasting. He has also had the challenge and opportunity of promoting his own work without the PR machine of a large firm. Shakhnevich has built relationships and a strong media presence, with tier-one publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, The Real Deal, Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and countless others, supplying commentary for their coverage of various cases.

Working as a private practitioner has also given Shakhnevich the ability to move towards the cases that interest him, and to prioritize the pro bono work and community involvement that is important to him. The cultural aspects of his practice include a strong focus on honesty and integrity, attributes he believes are essential in attracting and maintaining clients. He underlines the importance of being authentic rather than attempting to "sell" oneself. Ultimately Shakhnevich is guided by the power of hard work, integrity and the importance of community.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within your practice?

Dmitriy Shakhnevich: I focus my practice on the defense of criminal cases, as well as domestic relations matters, business and commercial disputes and certain other work in the realm of civil litigation.

LD: How did you first become interested in developing this type of practice?

DS: I began my work in criminal law in college. After working for a personal injury law firm as a paralegal for a few years, I began an internship at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and fell in love with the drama and theatrical nature of criminal practice, and courtroom work in general. I was hooked.

Now, the common route for those who practice criminal law for a living is to become a prosecutor out of law school. That’s what I wanted to do. So, I went back for another internship in law school. The goal was to get a job as a prosecutor out of law school. I don’t know how it is now but getting that kind of job was extremely difficult back then. It was super competitive. I think there were 4000 applicants fighting for 50 open seats. But I got the job.

This was 2012. My offer was contingent upon my passing of the Bar exam and the DA (it was a guy named Charles Hynes at the time) getting re-elected. Just as an FYI, this guy had been in office since 1989 and the last time a Brooklyn DA was unelected was 1911, I think. In any event, I passed the Bar, but the DA was not re-elected. The new DA (a guy named Ken Thompson) came in and pulled my offer. So, I had no choice but to go into private practice. If that wasn’t a sign that I had to go into business for myself, then I don’t know what is. After all, I was hit by something that last happened over a century ago!

LD: What did your career path look like after that?

DS: Well, after my DA’s Office offer fell through, I wasn’t left with many options. Again, the offer came in 2012, and I was told that I was out in December of 2013. So, in that time, I couldn’t really interview elsewhere. The minute any firm would hear that I have such a desirable offer lined up, and that the interviewing firm would just be my contingency plan, they would pass immediately. So, I had to start up on my own.

That’s the best part of being a lawyer running your own shop, in my opinion. You can diversify.

The problem is that when you do that, you don’t make any money. So I had to figure out a way to make some money. That’s why I initially starting teaching. Just to make some money. But I fell in love with teaching as well, and I did that for years, all of the way up until last year.

That’s the best part of being a lawyer running your own shop, in my opinion. You can diversify. I’ve done extensive media analyst work over the years. Probably more than virtually any other lawyer. I’ve run podcasts, published a book. Law is such a diverse field, but if you’re not on your own, your employment limitations may restrict what you can do. I don’t have those limitations, and that’s a huge benefit. But, again, I didn’t choose to go out on my own. It chose me.

LD: Out on your own so young, how did you learn the ropes of lawyering and building a practice?

DS: Once I realized that I was going into practice on my own, I figured that I had to learn from the best. I was young. I was a sponge. So I wanted to soak it all in. However, topflight mentors don’t want you around unless you can offer something. So I offered free work. I told some of the best lawyers in New York City that if they would give me a shot, I’d do good work and I’d do it for free as long as I could afford it.

I would send out dozens of emails every single day, and some of the best lawyers in this city were nice enough to let me tag along. I shadowed them and I learned everything from good lawyering to good law practice management. Chuck Ross (former law partner of Ben Brafman) was huge in terms of my development. I also worked for now-Judge Adam Perlmutter for some time, as well as Bruce Cutler. So I learned from the best. That was over a decade ago at this point. Time flies.

LD: How has your practice changed since then?

DS: It’s funny in criminal practice, because, naturally, your practice expands. For example, if I represent a client who is arrested for a dispute at home, or a fight with his or her business partner, then that could lead to other work, in domestic relations, commercial litigation and the like. Once a client trusts you, that client doesn’t typically want to leave you. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my practice expand as a result of that phenomenon. I always want to learn. If you stop learning in life, you start deteriorating. I’m deathly afraid of going backwards.

LD: Are there any trends in your practice these days?

DS: You know, over the course of the past several years, entirely unintentionally, I’ve represented numerous figures in the sports world. Folks like Sean Avery, Ravone Littlejohn (boxing promoter of Adrien Broner), Tim Donaghy, Lenny Dykstra, Cung Le and Ken Shamrock. I do find it incredibly interesting to represent people who have accomplished big things in their respective fields. Gaining insight into their levels of commitment and focus is fascinating, particularly if they’re fighting for something that they believe in. It really shows why they were successful in their respective professions. I love seeing that kind of stuff.

LD: There are many high-quality firms out there. What do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential clients – how is it unique?

DS: If you’re trying to sell to clients, then you’re in trouble. Just be honest with people. None of my clients will ever tell you that I tried to “sell” them by telling them that I’m the best lawyer in New York City or that I’m the smartest guy in the room. Yes, I’ve done good work, and my reputation has benefited as a result. But that’s not what gets you clients. What gets you clients is honesty. I always tell a client that I’m the guy who will take you by the hand and walk you across the street. That’s all. If you’re in trouble, I’ll be there with you every step of the way, and we’ll try to get you out of trouble. That’s what’s worked for me over the years. Never try to sell anyone anything.

Once you’ve figured out what you’re good at, triple down on it. Maximize your strengths. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t be entitled. Practice gratitude.

LD: What’s your approach to pro bono work?

DS: Pro bono work is so important. When I first started out, again, partially because I didn’t really have much work, I used to write letters to New York State prison inmates, asking them if they needed any pro bono legal work done. That was actually some of the most compelling work that I’ve done in my career. I can’t sit still. If I don’t have something to do, then I’ll find something to do. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose), as time passes and circumstances change, e.g., family, kids, mortgage, it becomes tougher to engage in pro bono work. My practice grew exponentially and I’m obviously happy about that. But I still do pro bono work as often as I can.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

DS: There’s really no difference between giving advice to a law student and giving advice to a friend. Work hard and be nice to people. That’s really it. But, of course, there are more nuanced pieces of advice that I could give. As with any line of work, be honest with yourself and figure out what you’re good at. What kind of lawyer do you want to be? Are you a writer or a talker? Do you want to run your own shop or are you okay with working for someone else? There are no right answers here.

For example, some lawyers say they want to be courtroom lawyers until they get into a courtroom. Then they’re miserable. And once you’ve figured out what you’re good at, triple down on it. Maximize your strengths. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t be entitled. Practice gratitude. Again, these aren’t really law-specific pieces of advice. In my experience, those qualities translate to any other line of work.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

DS: Family and friends are my lifeblood. Loneliness kills. It’s my firm belief that, other than a serious illness, loneliness is the most dangerous thing in the world. There are studies about it. Now, especially if you’re in a high-stress line of work, loneliness becomes even deadlier. You need to surround yourself with people, and a lot of people. Especially good people, and most people are good people. Otherwise, you’ll lose your mind and that won’t help you or your clients.

I’ve done a pretty good job of surrounding myself with a whole lot of wonderful people. Again, I try to work hard and be nice to people. That applies to your personal life as much as it does to your professional life. Life is simple. Don’t overcomplicate it. And of course, coming home to a wife, kids and dog running at you is simply the best feeling in the world. So I strongly recommend that you get yourself some of those things too.