College Columns December 2016 - Page 13

A Bankruptcy Partner Paddles to Freedom

Rebecca Blair, staff writer for

The American Lawyer

It's almost 11 a.m. on a Monday, and Jesse Austin is standing on the banks of the Nantahala River in North Carolina, wearing a bathing suit and a life jacket, about to start work. Five months ago, on a morning like this one, Austin would have already been in his old office at King & Spalding in Atlanta, where he was a partner in the firm's corporate reorganization and bankruptcy practice. Instead, he will spend the day guiding a raft full of clients through a series of whitewater rapids.

After almost 36 years in Big Law—19 as a Paul Hastings partner and three at King & Spalding—Austin retired in February. Except he still works a full time job, reaping the same minimum-wage salary as his college-age colleagues. As a rafting guide for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, Austin leads two expeditions a day through Class II and III whitewater.

Austin says he'd been involved in outdoor activities for much of his life, making time during his legal career for rafting or kayaking excursions. "I always wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn't want to let the law define me," he says. Although he enjoyed legal work, Austin says, after so many years coping with the "pressure to continuously develop a practice," he decided to step away at 62.

In the spring he enrolled in Nantahala Outdoor Center's "guide school," a weeklong training course for aspiring raft guides, and got certified in CPR and Wilderness Outdoor First Aid. He's now in the midst of his first season on the water, and plans to return next year. He still finds it special that after every trip, clients will smile and thank him. "You don't necessarily get a thank-you from your clients in Big Law if you do a good job," Austin jokes.

Over the past few months, Austin has invited several former colleagues from the firm to spend a day on his raft. There is often a moment of surprise when they see him in rafting gear without his business suit, now sporting a sizable beard. For Austin, though, the transition feels perfectly natural. "My perspective is that you have to retire to something instead of just from something," he says.

Originally published in The American Lawyer, August 1, 2016.