Crowning Achievements

When Courtney Moates Paulk isn’t resolving disputes on land, she’s conquering open water

Published in 2014 Virginia Super Lawyers — July 2014

Courtney Moates Paulk is often asked, “Why?”

Why did she swim across the English Channel? Why did she swim around Manhattan Island? Why did she plunge into the Catalina Channel at midnight surrounded by sea creatures unknown and swim more than 20 miles to the Southern California shore?

She answers two ways.

One, completing those swims earned her the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming—she received the title in September 2013, becoming the first person who lives in Virginia and the 79th person on the planet to do so.

Two, because she could.

“I just set my goals and I stuck with it,” says the construction law attorney who chairs Hirschler Fleischer’s litigation section. The challenge found her swimming for almost 12 consecutive hours on the Catalina leg, 14 for the English Channel and about nine hours around Manhattan.

When she started handling construction matters, she stuck with that, too. “What drew me to it is you have to have the procedure of the law and all of what that entails, and then you have the substantive law on top of that,” she says. “Then you throw a construction issue in the mix, and it makes for a lot of mental challenges.”

Her first construction case concerned a leaking baptismal font. “We actually had the arbitration at the church, and we had expert witnesses standing in the dry baptismal font to discuss the design and construction of it,” she says. “I’d never thought I’d have an office full of hard hats, but I do and I love it.”

The Richmond attorney represents public and private landowners, businesses and general contractors in dispute resolutions, arbitration and litigation.

Paulk says before entering a courtroom, she preps. “Just like when I swam across the English Channel, I [know I] have prepared and I’ve done all I can do to prepare; I’m going to do the best I can and whatever happens, happens,” she says. “Swimming has helped me realize in the practice of law how to take a curveball.”

One such moment came during the Catalina Channel swim. “I got bit by a sea lion at like 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning,” says Paulk, who was able to handle the situation more directly than curveballs in her day job: She kicked the sea lion in the head. Another time, a school of flying fish near Santa Catalina Island kept leaping and landing all around her and her guide boat during the first few hours of her swim.

There were beautiful moments, too: bioluminescent fish lighting a path in the night, thousands of skimming mackerel during the days, and a pod of jumping dolphins.

She credits her colleagues at the firm for encouraging her to take a dip back into the sport after a childhood spent on swim teams. In 2003, she joined two Hirschler Fleischer lawyers in training for the Great Chesapeake Bay 4.4 mile swim. Once she did that, she wanted more.

Through it all, she says her law practice came first. In 2011, on a matter involving the installation of a standing seam metal roof, “I had a 17-day trial which required work that lasted basically from January through June, when I was training for my Manhattan swim,” Paulk says. “We won on all fronts.”

She’s also raised more than $40,000 in connection with her swims; funds went to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in 2011, the Society for Melanoma Research in 2012 and the American Heart Association in 2013. In 2011 and 2012, she also raised money for Swim Free, a New York nonprofit that promotes healthy lifestyles through swimming and provides safety training for volunteers at open water swimming events.

She’s trained herself to keep on going. Paulk was 13 hours in to her English Channel swim when the coast of France kept winking at her. No matter how hard she pushed, though, she felt she wasn’t getting any closer. Paulk reached her “dark place,” she says. She stopped and asked her husband Matt, in the guide boat, how much longer. “Just keep swimming,” he told her. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. She cried. “Then I made myself stop crying because it was silly,” she wrote on her blog, swimandtonic. “And I didn’t want my goggles to fill up with tears. There was enough salt out there.”

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