Attorney Paul Jucknath is so comfortable sitting behind his polished wooden desk, it would be easy to assume he had worked there for years. But instead, at 57, he fondly remembers spending more than 30 years as a professional crane hand. “It’s just raw power,” he says. “There’s nothing I love more than sitting in a 300-ton crane, punch the throttle, pick a 10- or 15-ton piece of iron up a hundred feet in the air and set it in place.”
Jucknath grew up in central Florida, the ninth of 11 children. Although he easily could have gotten into college right after high school, he couldn’t afford it. So after graduation, he joined the United Chemical Workers Union and started working double shifts at a phosphate plant for $2.50 per hour.
He soon discovered that running cranes paid better. His older brother was a construction superintendent at a local phosphate mine and got him a job working on a giant walking dragline crane. It wasn’t long before Jucknath could run it better than operators twice his age. After that, he moved into construction, where even the largest construction cranes are small compared with mining cranes.
“It’s the most challenging piece of equipment I’ve had the opportunity to run,” Jucknath says. “If you misjudge your distances, or make a mistake, you could kill someone very quickly.” He remembers a former co-worker who was trained as a crane operator but didn’t have quite the same mechanical aptitude. “I knew from Day One that he would never be a good crane operator,” Jucknath says—and then he tells how a small mistake calculating leverage got that operator killed a few years later. “He turned one of those cranes over into the dry dock, killed him and the lead man. He fell 127 feet, and he went face first. There was nothing between him and the concrete of that dry dock except a glass window.”
It’s also physically demanding to operate a crane, and Jucknath knew he wouldn’t be able to do it for a lifetime. So in 1998, he enrolled at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He earned a business degree but was disappointed by how easy it was—he says he mostly just learned new words for principles he already understood. So then he got an accounting degree, but despite maintaining a 4.0 GPA, earning multiple awards and graduating summa cum laude, he discovered that firms didn’t want to hire him because he was too old. So he moved to Las Vegas, where summer crane work on the Trump Tower, Queensridge and the Cosmopolitan helped him pay his way through law school. After graduating in 2009, he rented a downtown office and started his own individual law practice. Now he’s getting used to the slower life of working behind a desk every day.
But sometimes he still misses those cranes.
“It’s a backup plan,” he says. “Even though I have a J.D., I’m not above going out there and getting my hands dirty again, if the situation calls for it.”