Northern Exposure

Florina Altshiler wanted to work high-level felonies. She found them in Anchorage

Published in 2019 Upstate New York Super Lawyers — August 15, 2019

Florina Altshiler’s sixth-floor office is a shrine of sorts to her career. 

One wall is adorned with uniform patches gifted to her from various law enforcement organizations she worked with as a prosecutor.  Another boasts a mix of commendations and media profiles. You’ll also find a dozen prints the self-taught photographer has taken, each accompanied by quotes taken directly from cases she’s been involved with or overheard while in court—the juxtaposition often stark and alarming.

Altshiler, managing attorney of Buffalo’s Russo & Toner, arrived in the U.S. from the Ukraine with her parents at 7. The family settled in Brooklyn and flourished. After St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, Altshiler found medical malpractice defense work in Manhattan. But eight years of it, coupled with a two-hour commute from Brooklyn, took its toll. 

“New York was expensive, and it was exhausting,” she says. “I was ready for a change.”

Particularly since she still hadn’t found a path to trial work, which is what she most wanted.

One day in 2012, while perusing The New York Times, Altshiler came across an article that would reshape her career: “The article said sex crimes were four times the national average in Alaska,” she remembers. 

Why Alaska? Among the reasons, the article cited a concentration of Native American women in remote villages; a lack of tribal resources and reporting structure; a history within the culture of not discussing sexual assault; and high levels of alcohol abuse. 

“If you’re a trauma surgeon, you’re going to go to an area with high gun crime,” Altshiler says. “If I wanted to prosecute high-level felonies, I had to go where crimes were happening.” 

Altshiler applied for a prosecutor job as an ADA in Anchorage. 

“I started on a Wednesday, and I was picking my first jury on Monday,” she says. 

If the idea of a 30-something Ukrainian immigrant from Brooklyn relocating to Alaska to prosecute sex crimes sounds like a reality show pitch, Altshiler saw it simply as a next step. 

“I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids, so why not?” she says.  

For nearly three years she lived in Anchorage, surrounded by its breathless beauty, which she began to photograph via a unique lens: as juxtaposition to the dark reality of her work.

One such photo showcases the majestic snowcapped Alaskan mountains paired with this trial quote:

“Judge: With regard to the charge of Rape in the First Degree, the defendant is found not guilty . . . next time, ask for consent.” 

Altshiler considers her art a coping mechanism. 

“As a prosecutor, you deal with some really heavy cases and difficult situations,” she says. “Sometimes injecting a little bit of … dark humor into the situation makes it a little easier to carry that load.” 

Altshiler sat as first chair in more than 20 jury trials. But she soon decided it was time for a change. Buffalo won after she read about how the city’s low cost of living was attracting young professionals. 

At Russo & Toner, where she’s been since 2015, she handles labor law and insurance defense work. While her caseload doesn’t carry the same adrenaline rush she experienced as an ADA, Altshiler’s OK with it.

“There can be an inevitable struggle with someone who is both ambitious and restless,” she says. “At a certain point you learn to settle down and to be happy pausing. I’m married with a child now, and Buffalo is a great place to raise a family.” 

Meanwhile, she has shown her art work in four galleries, and sold more than two dozen pieces to collectors.

“The criminal justice system is just this dirty, difficult, raw place,” Altshiler says. “When you connect that to the beauty in the photographs, it draws you in.” 

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