‘We All Need Help Sometimes’

Why Russell Austin can’t say no to community service

Published in 2015 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2015

In 2010, Russell Austin took a tour of a homeless shelter run by Saint John’s Program for Real Change, led by a woman who had been living there for about six weeks.

“This woman had a couple of small kids and had lost her home to foreclosure, and her husband had disappeared,” says Austin, who heads the commercial real estate team at Sacramento’s Murphy Austin Adams Schoenfeld. “She had nowhere to go, and she was ready, willing and able to sign up for Saint John’s [shelter]. It’s a lot of work.” The shelter requires residents to meet deadlines, earn their GEDs, take substance-abuse counseling and parenting classes if needed, and meet curfew restrictions.

A few months later, Austin saw the woman again when she was working at Plates Café, a restaurant run by Saint John’s to provide on-the-job work opportunities.

“She was the hostess,” he says. “One of the regular customers, who owned a business, was so impressed with [her] that, at her graduation, he hired her at a salary of $40,000 to be part of his customer-service team.”

Austin eats regularly at Plates, which is near to his heart because he helped negotiate its first lease at a local business park. When he heard that Saint John’s needed a new shelter, he pitched in on that project, too. Austin secured gifts from banks and other donors, including a $1 million sponsorship from one bank. He then connected with client and developer Larry Allbaugh, CEO of The Buzz Oates Group of Companies, who provided land at a bargain price and built the shelter. The doors opened in March 2014.

“It was a great way for me to bring my day-job skills to [community] service,” says Austin, who has logged more than 350 hours—worth more than $250,000 in donated value—since 2010 for Saint John’s. And that’s just one of his pro bono clients.

A native of the LA suburbs—he played ball at San Gabriel High School with future San Francisco Giants pitcher (and announcer) Mike Krukow—Austin graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law in 1980 and went to work for Marron Reid, a small San Francisco firm.

When he opened the firm’s Sacramento office 1 ½ years later, he says, “I needed to build up a practice and make a name for myself in a city where I knew nobody. Volunteer work was the best way to go about that.”

Austin started working with the young lawyers’ division of the Sacramento County Bar, as well as the local Voluntary Legal Services Program and Legal Services of Northern California.

“I don’t know the details of how to help a client with a Social Security claim, but I do know how to run things, and I do know how to promote community involvement,” he says. “Lawyers have had the benefit of legal education that helps us develop skills in solving problems, and we have a professional obligation to use those skills for community service.”

Austin has applied those skills in a variety of legal arenas, focusing on the environment and the arts in addition to homelessness. He served on the board of Crocker Art Museum and the Sacramento Valley Conservancy. Now he’s helping B Street Theatre expand into a new complex.

Austin worked at Marron Reid for 18 years, and in 1999 co-founded Murphy Austin. “My partners and colleagues, both at Marron Reid and here, have really been very, very supportive of my pro bono work,” Austin says. “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘You need to do less of this.’”

He downplays the challenge of finding enough time. “You build it into your life,” he says. “You’re taking on clients. They happen to be pro bono. They are just as important, and deserve the same level of service as any other client you’re working with.”

If Austin needs a reminder of why he puts in so many pro bono hours, he only has to think about the woman who once guided him around the shelter.

“The transformation of this woman from when I first met her on that tour, when she was feeling the shock of being in a homeless shelter, to the pride and self-confidence she evidenced at graduation—where she could provide a stable environment for her two small kids—it was wonderful to behold.

“Life can be tough. You can get knocked around. We all need help sometimes.”

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