Jay Mac Rust was tired of working in the city. After graduating from the University of Texas Law School in 1999, Rust developed a successful practice with attorney Gregory D. Jordan in Austin.
But city life didn’t sit well with Rust, who grew up enjoying the outdoors on a ranch. “Practicing law can be tedious,” he says. “It involves sitting inside at a desk all day.
“I had been practicing in Austin and moved out to College Station to get out of the big city, but I was still doing nothing but the law,” Rust says. “I just got burned out.” So a few years ago when his father bought a ranch in Gordon, a small town near Stephenville, he and his wife decided to make a move. They found a perfect spot in Gordon. It was a ranch that was originally constructed by and for the well-known builder D.R. Horton.
“It was perfect and, being built by D.R. Horton, I knew it was well constructed,” he says.
Rust and his wife, Lani, a barrel racer, settled in for a bucolic life in the country, raising, training and riding cutting horses, which are used during round-up to cut out cattle for ownership and branding — and also for competitions often held during rodeos and livestock shows. He loves the grit and hardscrabble world of horse training, and his wife, also a small-town girl, enjoys being out of the city.
But he hasn’t completely forsaken the law. He has an office in his home and began taking on civil, business and employment disputes when things slowed down in the horse business. “Horses are just a hobby for most people, so if the economy slows down, so does the horse business,” he says. “But people always need lawyers.”
He’s pleased with the balance of his life. “Now I can practice law, taking only the better cases and still go outside and ride my horses. It’s a great release,” he says. Rust was raised by his father, Robert, a world-champion cutting horse rider. “It’s the family business, so to speak — I’m going back to my roots.”
Although Rust may feel more comfortable on the back of a horse than in a desk chair, he still has no trouble saddling up in a courtroom to try a complex contingency-fee civil case.
“I love it because you’re always on the offensive,” he says of his law practice. “Basically that guy has your money and you’ve got to go get it, which, to me, is fun. It’s more challenging because you’ve got to be creative to find ways to get your money,” he says.
One of his trickiest cases was a whistleblower case involving Aina Kim Hill, a former accountant with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. Hill sued the state, alleging that her 1997 termination was in retaliation because she provided information to the State Auditor’s Office on financial irregularities in her agency. The agency contended that Hill’s termination was a business decision resulting from its reorganization.
“We found it a little strange that when they reorganized the agency it just so happened that Hill, who had uncovered some less-than-above-board practices at the agency, was the only one without a job,” says Rust. At her trial in the 201st Travis County District Court, the jury agreed with Hill, awarding her approximately $160,000 in damages.
But Rust still had a big job ahead of him. “The thing about suing the government is that not only do you have to prove your case — heck, that’s only half the battle — you’ve got to get the legislature to allocate money to pay your client if you do win,” he says. Eventually the state did pay its bill.
“We didn’t make a bunch of money on that case,” he says, “but it was more satisfying than some of the million-dollar cases we’ve done, because Ms. Hill had not only been wronged, she was a model citizen. She had come over from Korea, worked her way up through the ranks in state government and become a fine accountant. She was doing the right thing when she exposed problems at the agency, only to be rewarded by a shove out the door.”
After handling a few cases in Stephenville, a town of 17,000 about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth, word began to spread that Rust was a focused and dependable legal force. Before long, the Erath County district attorney came calling. He asked if Rust would mind handling some pro bono criminal cases. Rust agreed and quickly found himself recharged and refreshed in the legal arena.
“You can really make a difference in criminal law,” he says. “I realize this is not a popular thing to say, but a lot of people get into trouble with the criminal justice system simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The machine, the system, is made to beat you.”
Rust cites a recent juvenile case as an example of how he can make a difference. A 15-year-old boy was accused of burning a neighbor’s child left in his care. He was under suspicion because the boy’s twin brother had burned to death several years earlier and many suspected the boy of having been involved.
“He hadn’t set any more fires than any other 15-year-old boy in the country, but to hear the prosecutor tell it, you’d think he was a pyromaniac. Heck, I still like burning stuff myself,” says Rust.
Rust didn’t get the boy declared innocent, but he puts the case in the win column nonetheless.
“I don’t think he did it and I did my dead-level best to prove that,” says Rust. “Now, I didn’t get the boy declared not guilty, but I got him a third-degree felony conviction as opposed to a first-degree felony, which was what the prosecutor wanted. That would have sent him up for 40 years and ruined his life. “
Now reinvigorated and reimmersed in legal issues, Rust has opened an office in Stephenville and recently accepted an assignment in Austin with his former law partner, Jordan.
“It’s a mess of a case with lots of paperwork, but it’s interesting as hell and I know by the time we’re finished I’ll be ready to come back, put on my boots and work with the horses again,” he says.