September 2019 bar bulletin
By Andrew Prazuch
In an era of increasing specialization in the practice of law, one might be hard pressed to name a lawyer who has extensive expertise in more than one or two areas. But imagine for a moment someone with far more than those one or two areas of expertise. How about a lawyer with significant expertise in commercial product liability, turbine engines, ATM networks, bankruptcy and receivership, start-up technology companies, waste management, and grocery chains?
As a colleague recently described him, Jim Austin is the “quintessential polymath.”
Life for this polymath began in Los Angeles, where Austin was born and lived until his father, a lifelong Sears Roebuck employee, was transferred to the Seattle area. The family put down roots in Shoreline, where Austin grew up. Those roots have remained deep: Austin served as chairman of his high school class’ recent 50th reunion.
While an undergraduate at Stanford, Austin literally knocked on the doors of that school’s law faculty to ask for their advice on where he should attend law school. Universally he was told the University of Chicago would be the better choice, so Austin bid the West Coast farewell for a period of rigorous academics and powerful winters. Yet the connection to home was strong, with Austin working for his then and present-day employer, Karr Tuttle Campbell, during law school summers and continually since his bar admission in 1975.
Austin’s career has spanned many areas of law, as noted above. He began working on commercial product liability for major corporations such as Westinghouse and General Electric, handling matters related to engines, turbines and generators. It was during these first years that he learned an important lesson from his mentor, attorney Joe Holmes.
“A client needed a lease done and Joe assigned it to me as a young associate,” Austin explained. “But I was so thoroughly involved in another litigation matter that I couldn’t get to it and didn’t respond to the client’s repeated status inquiries. Eventually, the client called Joe, wondering what had happened.”
Austin recalled that Holmes called him into his office and said, “I’m not real mad at you, Jim,” which Austin knew meant that Holmes really was. “But instead of chewing me out, he made it a lesson for me about the importance of always responding to clients promptly.”
Austin learned that lesson well from that day forward, to the point of being fastidious about returning messages to this day. He won’t let a client go more than 24 hours without a returned phone call or email, often responding within an hour or two.
Before the advent of email though, Austin saw his practice continue to expand into new areas. In the late 1970s, Karr Tuttle Campbell was retained as counsel to Peoples National Bank of Washington, with Austin helping to begin the firm’s banking practice — becoming so integral to that work that the bank asked Austin to work out of its corporate office space for a time as it developed one of the first automatic teller machine networks in the Pacific Northwest.
It was around this time that Austin’s first active involvement with the King County Bar Association began. He had worked on adopting a new Washington Bankruptcy Act in 1978 and volunteered to author the KCBA Washington Lawyers Practice Manual chapter about it, which he continued to update for many years to follow.
From banking, Jim began working with clients in the still-new area of startup technology firms. He helped create the Eastside Computer Lawyers Association and as legal work grew for technology firms with the ever-increasing presence of Microsoft, Austin was tapped to manage Karr Tuttle Campbell’s Bellevue office.
Austin’s breadth of experience kept expanding as his career advanced. From the waste management to the grocery industries, clients continued to seek him out. His clients have included Air Canada, Cingular Wireless, Allied Waste Industries, and KONG Television, to name just a few.
And it isn’t just clients who seek Austin out, so do his colleagues. At his firm, Austin is known as the one person everyone turns to when a colleague faces a thorny corporate matter or any legal question, for that matter. Karr Tuttle Campbell shareholder Diana Carey reports that “he always takes the time to listen and help with a legal interpretation or offer a solution. His legal and community involvement make him a terrific role model for newer associates. Jim is the quintessential polymath — beloved by his Karr Tuttle partners, respected by his colleagues in the community, and revered by firm clients for his wide-ranging knowledge.”
Outside the firm, Jim is a leader in the profession, too. In the early 2000s, he was very involved in enacting the state’s 2004 Receivership Act. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Marc Barecca recalls that “the Act totally replaced prior Washington receivership law and led to a tremendous increase in usage of receiverships in Washington. The legislation was the product of years of work by many members of the state bar’s Creditor Debtor Law Section, but especially by Jim Austin. Without him, receivership would still be a vaguely understood and relatively little used legal tool in Washington.” As Judge Barecca further noted, “By far, the most work was done by Jim Austin and he should be commended for his years of dedication and scholarship.”
In addition to his legal expertise, Austin has proven to be a leader in the important work of the King County Bar to promote access to justice and expand diversity within the profession. He served for over nine years as a trustee of the King County Bar Foundation — the fundraising arm for the bar’s charitable work. His service included a term as board president.
Fellow past President Kathryn Battuello recalls Austin “bringing the same exceptional intellect, enthusiasm, persistence, and dedication to his work on KCBF as he brought to bear when assisting clients with their legal matters.” She went on to say, “He never missed an opportunity to tell others about the great work KCBF supports and encourage them to make a financial contribution. And, his approach to board service was exemplary in all respects — time, talent and personal treasure devoted to advance KCBF’s ability to promote equal access to justice.”
Among Austin’s most important achievements with KCBF was helping to launch the 125th Anniversary Endowment Campaign. He hosted a board retreat at his home where he used his leadership skills to make the case to trustees that the time was right to significantly increase the Foundation’s existing endowment.
He appointed Battuello, his immediate foundation president predecessor, along with the president slated to follow him, Harry Schneider, to lead the steering group that would eventually raise over a million dollars. He and his wife Leslie were also one of the leading personal donors to the effort.
Throughout his legal career, in fact beginning in the eighth grade, Austin has also been an avid musician. His current band is called “No Rules” with Austin providing vocals and playing keyboard, tenor saxophone and guitar. KCBA past President Scott Smith has heard him perform. “Jim has fronted a rock and R&B/soul cover band since the days of Ziggy Stardust,” Smith noted. “Working with a terrific group of versatile musicians, Jim is fun, energetic, and completely engaged in delivering a memorable show. Before the end of the first set of No Rules, Jim’s shirt is a wet mess as he joyously belts out the songs we love to sing and dance to.”
Today, Austin has moved to of counsel status with Karr Tuttle Campbell, still going into the office at least once a week. He hopes to have more time for his band, gardening, political engagement (he’s active in the Eighth Congressional District’s “Indivisible” group), and travel with Leslie. They have two adult children, Lindsay and Michael, and two grandchildren.
As Austin looks back on his career, he has zero regrets. “I still love the law and never want to get away from it,” he says. He still mentors young associates and shares the lesson he learned when he began his practice. “Make every client feel they’re the most important client you’ve got.”