Courtney Moates Paulk ’92 knew she wanted to grow up to be an actress or an attorney. What she didn’t know was that one would lead to another. Or that the skills she learned on stage – how to speak in front of a crowd, how to interpret even the most complex characters – would serve her long after she left it.
For the last 17 years, Paulk has worked as a construction lawyer for the Richmond-based firm Hirschler, where she was recently elected as the firm’s first female president.
“Every day,” she said, “I am thankful for my theatre education.”
Paulk arrived at Mary Washington in 1990 after two years at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre in St. Louis, a program so selective it accepted just 30 students a year and cut the class by half midway through.
She wasn’t quite sure what to do when she was among those sent home. After a semester off, she picked Mary Washington. In theatre class, and in student productions, Paulk studied people and their personalities and what motivated them. She learned that what people say isn’t always what they mean.
“Diving into a character, trying to understand what makes a character tick, is no different than figuring people out,” she said.
An introduction to a logic course with the late George Van Sant, distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy, taught Paulk something about herself.
“The class was fascinating. I didn’t think I was a logical person. I thought I was more of a creative person. I really got logic,” Paulk said.
After graduating from Mary Washington, she went to work as a paralegal in Fredericksburg – and found that she loved it. She stayed five years.
“You use your brain in a way that is logical and creative at the same time,” she said, and in that way, going from a theatre major to a law student at the University of Richmond felt like a natural transition.
Theatre had also given her the confidence to stand up in front of a crowd, to use her voice, and to lead. Paulk joined Hirschler in 2002.
The firm historically specialized in real estate law and had a long list of clients who were developers and contractors. She’d been there a month when a partner approached her.
“He said, ‘You’re new, you don’t have anything to do, come with me.’ Off we went,” Paulk recalled.
Soon, she was representing a general contractor who’d been sued by a church after a baptismal font the size of a wading pool began to leak. “The partner trusted me to handle the case on my own. I won. I thought, ‘This is so cool. I want to do more of this,’” she said.
A star was born. The media firm Thomas Reuters has regularly named Paulk one of Virginia’s Super Lawyers based on peer recognition and personal achievement.
At Hirschler, she’s preparing to take center stage in her latest role as the first female president.
“It’s significant because I am the first,” Paulk said. “It also speaks to the fact that the firm is a place where both men and women can be successful.”
When she’s making cases before judges and juries, or negotiating and drafting contracts, or helping resolving disputes, or advising a host of public and private owners, developers, contractors and subcontractors, Paulk spends her time as an open water marathon swimmer.
In 2013, she joined an elite group of athletes who have earned the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, completing a 28-1/2-mile swim around the island of Manhattan, a 21-mile stretch between Catalina Island and the mainland of California and the 21-mile expanse across the English Channel. A year later, she became only the seventh person to swim across Cape Cod Baby from Plymouth to Provincetown, breaking a course record by nearly 40 minutes.
To date, she has completed the Manhattan and Catalina swims four times. She made the English Channel swim a second time and hopes to complete it for a third time next summer.
In the water, Paulk said, her mind is free. “I dive in. It’s almost meditative. I can wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something. In the water, I don’t.”
That’s something theatre taught her, too.
“You’ve got to learn how to check everything you’ve got going on in your personal life at the door, because you’ve got to be another person on stage.”
In the water, she said, “I’m in the moment. I’m just out there swimming.”