From foreclosures to fighting for homes
How retired corporate attorney Thomas Cox found purpose in his second act helping low-income families fight wrongful foreclosures.
FORTUNE — Thomas Cox, 70, is not a professional homebuilder. Nonetheless, Cox found himself working in construction in Maine for about six years during the 2000s. Those were some of the more rewarding years of his career, he says.
Cox’s inspiration to build homes hit him suddenly after spending decades watching them get destroyed. A former managing partner at a prominent Maine law firm, Cox worked for 25 years helping banks engineer foreclosures. When the savings and loans crisis hit the U.S. in the late 1980s, Cox worked with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation collecting faulty loans from members of his small Maine community.
“It was really difficult, dark work, but it needed to be done,” says Cox. “Taking people’s homes is extremely unpleasant. Shutting down their businesses when they are fighting like crazy to keep them open is worse.”
Cox made $300,000 a year during the peak of his career, but said no amount of money could shake the significant toll the work was having on his mental health. Suffering from bipolar disorder and depression, the Pennsylvania native decided to leave the practice entirely in 1998 to pursue treatment options.
A few years later, after battling through a divorce and a slew of treatment options, a former client approached him about joining his carpentry business. The timing was perfect: Cox wanted to get back to a daily work routine, and he always enjoyed projects that produced tangible results. “As a lawyer, when you are done with a day of work all you have is a pile of papers to look at,” explains Cox. “When I built something with my own hands, it took a lot of the pressure off.”
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Medical professionals urged Cox not to go back into the legal profession. Stress is a major trigger of depression and he didn’t need a doctor to tell him that a majority of his anxiety was work-related. Yet when the foreclosure crisis hit the country around 2008, Cox found himself wanting to get involved. Around the same time, a local nonprofit was launching an organization to provide legal help for low-income homeowners facing foreclosures: Main Attorneys Saving Homes.
Once again, Cox felt a call to action to build homes — this time in a different way.