Jennifer L. Mackovjak is the Senior Vice President of Investigations at Hillard Heintze. She is a highly seasoned civil and criminal investigator with extensive U.S. and international public and private sector credentials. Jennifer directs investigations related to corporate misconduct, pre-transactional and investigative due diligence, asset searches, business disputes, fraud, competitive intelligence and litigation support.
Can you tell us how you got started in this field, Jennifer?
I didn’t start in the private sector in my current field, but my nearly 25-year career has always involved some facet of investigations. Encyclopedia Brown was my favorite book growing up and I basically wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown (not sure why it wasn’t Nancy Drew at the time, though!)
I first started my career in the criminal justice and investigations field through college internships with the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office and separately tutored women who were — in lieu of jail — sentenced to a halfway house. These were low-level, non-violent criminals who had mostly drug-related offenses. The latter internship was more social-service oriented, helping them develop life and job training skills, from understanding how to balance a checking account to applying for a job.
A week after graduating from Marquette University, I moved to New York City with my college roommate, but without a job. Looking back, that seems pretty crazy but that combination of naiveté, youthful spirit and drive changed my life forever. As I got older – and realized I could be much more than Encyclopedia Brown – I wanted to be an FBI agent. I remember filling out a daunting application (not online at the time), but without at least three years of work experience, I quickly got that letter, “Thank you so much for applying, but …”
Around the same time, I became familiar with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and saw an entry-level role as an investigative analyst. So I called ahead and then walked in with my resume, because that’s what I thought you did back then, which I think startled the Personnel administrator. As luck would have it, after meeting me briefly he thought I might be a good fit with a very senior female prosecutor who needed a new analyst. I met her within the week and we hit it off. She was also from Ohio. She reminded me of my older sister and I think I reminded her of her younger sister. The interview went well but I had another one lined up just after and as I told her I had to head out because I didn’t want to be late, she told me “Don’t go! You got to meet the head of the unit.” I skipped that other interview, met her boss and was hired.
So, how would you describe your professional background in a nutshell?
I would describe it in a couple of different ways: I’m a hybrid of someone who has worked for the government, public sector and also the private, corporate sector. I’ve worked in law enforcement for half of my career and investigations all of my career.
In my first two roles at the Manhattan DA’s office I worked in two very specialized units as an analyst for three years before attending the police academy. One was called the Career Criminal Program which handled some of the most serious and sensitive prosecutions in the office – ranging from homicides and other violent or serious felonies to robberies and burglaries. I was promoted and worked in the Homicide Investigation Unit, which at the time was a highly specialized unit that investigated violent narcotics gangs, homicides and other acts of violence. It was a very small, tight-knit and highly collaborative group comprised of seasoned prosecutors, detectives and analysts who all played a large role in reducing the number of murders in New York City at that time.
I wanted to do more than be an analyst though – I wanted to be a sworn police officer. I went through the police academy and then went back to the Manhattan DA’s office, this time as a detective investigator. In that role I worked on a variety of long-term investigations including homicides, enterprise corruption, grand larceny, securities fraud, identify theft and sexual abuse, among others. I stayed there until 2005, when I left the public sector to move to Chicago and started working at a major investigations and security firm. I knew I didn’t want to leave the investigations field and it seemed like it would be a great fit – and it was. Then I joined Hillard Heintze in January 2011.
How would you describe your role at Hillard Heintze?
We work on a variety of investigations, including litigation support, due diligence, asset searches, internal investigations and threat assessments, among others. I work with a collaborative team here at Hillard Heintze. It’s a lot of multitasking and it’s very fast-paced. We look into different people, corporate entities, issues and industries. We help clients mitigate risk, provide them with insight to make good decisions and solve problems. It’s different every day, which makes it really fun.
What would you say is your most valuable skillset?
I’m able to take in, remember, track, distill and make sense of a lot of information. I’m in my element at the center of a lot of moving parts, people, priorities and deadlines. I’m also able to listen to a client and tailor our services to their needs.
What are you most proud of?
I would definitely say serving in the Manhattan DA’s office and being surrounded by people with such integrity is among the tops. Being able to serve under Robert Morgenthau — he was probably the most respected DA at the time — was amazing. But I am equally proud of the work we are doing here at Hillard Heintze and the incredible, talented, smart and hard-working group that I have the privilege of working with and learning from every day.
While in the private sector I also have done work assisting the Innocence Project in New York and Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. There was one case in particular I played a big role in – a falsely accused man who served nearly 18 years in prison for a 1988 murder he did not commit. It was a truly amazing experience to help him by being a small part of his legal team that worked relentlessly to uncover the truth (the actual person who committed the murder has since been convicted and is prison).
I was also in lower Manhattan on 9/11 where I saw law enforcement, first responders and everyday New Yorkers at their absolute finest. I was proud to be in law enforcement and help out wherever I could during that time.
So tell us more about Hillard Heintze. What do you love most about your job?
In law enforcement, the criminal justice system or corporate investigations, it’s all about finding information. It’s always about staying honest to the integrity of the case and ultimately finding the truth, regardless of what that is.
Whether it’s here at Hillard Heintze or elsewhere, I love being part of a team, leading a team. And I love that I get to learn about so many different industries and work across the globe. I also really love mentoring team members.
What advice would you give to young women?
Get on the hardest project you can — the one most out of your comfort zone — with the person who will challenge you and you will learn the most from, that person who will make you want to work really hard. When you work on those projects, when you succeed (and of course sometimes fail), you’re going to be that much better.
Speak up and don’t get in your own way. Be yourself and have confidence in your background, education and life experience. Surround yourself with smart, interesting and interested people. Work as hard as you can and always try to compliment and lift others up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.