The mantra started in middle school, and it persisted through high school, college and beyond for Sonja McKenzie.
McKenzie, general counsel for the Cherry Creek School District, found a clear direction after learning about the U.S. Constitution as an eighth-grader in Illinois. Though she can no longer remember the precise contents of that lesson or summon the exact words of her middle-school social studies teacher, the effect was powerful and permanent.
"After that point I said, without fail, 'I want to be a lawyer.' And I never changed from that path," McKenzie recalled. "All through high school, I said, 'I want to be a lawyer.' I went to college, I was a political science major and I said, 'I want to be a lawyer.' I graduated from college and immediately went to law school."
"I can't tell you what that teacher said or did that lit a fire under me, but she did," McKenzie added.
After graduating from law school at the University of Denver in 1993, McKenzie made good on her early statement of purpose, finding a post at well-known Denver metro area firm working on cases that ranged from governmental entity defense work to trademark infringement trials.
It was in representing school districts, however, that McKenzie quickly found some of the most challenging and rewarding work in the form of cases that drew on a wide range of her expertise.
"Over time, I really developed an affinity and a passion for school district work," McKenzie said. "It was incredibly fascinating because it was just a myriad of things. Some days, I was doing a slip-and-fall on snow and ice case; some days, I was doing an ADA discrimination case. The types of cases representing a school district was the sun, the moon and the stars. It was vastly interesting."
The challenging breadth of school district work is part of what made McKenzie to accept the role of general counsel for Cherry Creek Schools in 2012. After more than two decades in the field, her work leading Cherry Creek Schools' legal department still offers a constant array of interesting questions, challenges that remind her why she got into the profession in the first place.
That makes sense, considering the size of the district. With more than 54,000 students in dozens of buildings spread across more than 100 square miles, the diversity of the work is constantly intriguing and engaging.
"I have not been bored a single day since I came to Cherry Creek ... I find the work that I'm doing immensely professionally rewarding and interesting. I can't make this stuff up, what people come up with. Being in-house counsel for a large school district of this size is like taking the bar exam every day."
-- Sonja McKenzie, general counsel for the Cherry Creek School District
"I have not been bored a single day since I came to Cherry Creek," McKenzie said. "I find the work that I'm doing immensely professionally rewarding and interesting. I can't make this stuff up, what people come up with. Being in-house counsel for a large school district of this size is like taking the bar exam every day."
But the legal challenges of the work are only part of the appeal. McKenzie finds a value in the larger mission of the district itself, in contributing to Cherry Creek Schools' commitment to education and excellence. In addressing questions of building accessibility for students with disabilities, in finalizing contracts that have given Transitions Program participants a bridge to a future career and in traveling to schools to serve as a judge during "We the People" civics competitions, McKenzie directly address issues that have a firsthand effect on students' daily access to a quality education.
Along with the rest of the District Leadership Team, a group that includes plenty of former teachers and school administrators, McKenzie plays a role in fulfilling the Cherry Creek School District's core vision for every child. Along with the "continuity of leadership" and "gracious and kind" colleagues at Cherry Creek, that aspect holds a great deal of value.
"That's really cool to me. That gives me a professional satisfaction in a way that I can't even measure," she said. "It's so valuable to me, to feel that I played a small role in a really big effort. I'm very proud."
In part, the connection to the education of 54,000-plus students offers a powerful reminder. At "We the People" and other Congressional hearing competitions, for example, McKenzie comes into contact with middle and high school students, many of whom are learning about civics and core constitutional values for the very first time. It summons her own early interest in the U.S. Constitution in school and raises some inspiring possibilities.
"I can go for a day and be a judge and tell these students what I do," McKenzie said. "Maybe by going and talking to a kid who shines in a competition … Maybe I inspire them to be a lawyer."