Rodeo Mentality

After a rodeo injury, Wyoming's J. Kent Rutledge decided to go to law school

Published in 2014 Mountain States Super Lawyers Magazine

“Growing up on a ranch you learn very early about responsibility,” says J. Kent Rutledge. Raised on his family’s cattle ranch in southeast Wyoming, the attorney did what ranch kids do: made sure the livestock had food and water, shelter and veterinary care.

“Nothing was more rewarding to me than going out on horseback and bringing cows and calves in when there was a storm and saving a baby calf that was wet and freezing cold,” he says. “Being diligent and responsible was not only the compassionate thing to do; it was necessary to make the ranch profitable.”

Rutledge liked everything about ranching—the hard work, the values learned, being there for neighbors during blizzards or just helping with the branding—and figured that’s where his future lay.

“When I was old enough to decide on a career, my two older brothers were on the ranch and there wasn’t really room for another family,” he says. “Although I would like to have stayed, I needed to look for something else to do.”

He looked for inspiration in a man he says he “admired from an early age,” Carlton Lathrop, the ranch’s attorney and father of Rutledge’s current senior partner, Carl Lathrop. “He planted the seed about becoming a lawyer,” says Rutledge. If the seed did not immediately take—Rutledge taught vocational agriculture for two years after graduating from the University of Wyoming—he was intrigued enough to take the LSAT.

There was also the rodeo injury. As a young boy, Rutledge’s father signed him up for a calf-riding contest in a junior rodeo, but “decided right after being dumped early in the ride that I would enjoy roping and tying calves much more than riding them,” he says. Years later, Rutledge got his thumb and a finger caught in a dally.

“That’s when you wrap the rope around the horn to secure the steer in team roping—which left me with only half of my thumb and the loss of the tip of my middle finger on my right hand,” he says. “That made the decision to sell my roping horse and my horse trailer to help finance law school a lot easier.”

After graduating from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1974, Rutledge wound up working for Carl Lathrop. “He offered me a job after I graduated from law school. I have been here ever since,” says Rutledge, of Lathrop & Rutledge in Cheyenne.

Upon graduating, he thought he would combine both worlds he felt privileged to be part of, and work “with ranching people on [legal] issues that affected them,” he says. “And our firm did that kind of work, but also did a lot of insurance defense work. I was assigned to work on litigation files as well as general practice. Over the years litigation has become a much more demanding endeavor, and it has become very difficult to serve other clients who need things when I am off taking a deposition or in trial.”

Now he primarily represents physicians in medical malpractice litigation, as well as clients in commercial litigation. “I would like to work into doing mediations at some point,” says Rutledge, 68, adding that he has “no plans to retire anytime soon.”

Nor does he have plans to step away from the bulls. After volunteering in various capacities for Cheyenne Frontier Days for 25 years, he served as its general chairman, and several years ago became general counsel for the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. “I have been very lucky,” he says of his career, as well as in the arena several years back.

“I was helping a cowboy with his bull rope when another bull was in the arena after bucking off his rider,” he says. “The bull in the arena was chasing everyone up the chute gates. I didn’t notice him come up behind me since I was helping the cowboy who was next. The bull elected to leave me alone. One of the bullfighters—he knew I was a lawyer—explained it as ‘professional courtesy.’”

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