Small-Town Client Myth

Greeley, Colorado lawyer Todd Taylor asks, Are Money & Social Media Ruining the Legal Profession?, a bit of a paean to “small-town” practice:

In the Satires, Juvenal thought the problem of getting paid was a reason to avoid a career in the law:

“There’s no money in it. Argue yourself hoarse before some bumpkin of a judge–what do you get? A couple of bottles of vin rouge; and you’ve got your clerks to pay. The only way to get a name is to live like a lord; that’s how clients pick their counsel. And Rome soon eats up your capital that way. If you’re thinking of making a living by speeches you’d better get off to Gaul or Africa.”

So not much has changed in the practice of law in 2000 years. You still find bumpkin judges. (But, for the record, none of the judges I appear before are evil or unfair, at least as far as a reasonable attorney would understand those terms.) You’ve still got your clerks to pay. Some clients still pick their counsel based on their high-falutin’ ways and larger-than-life reputations. (That’s what my blood-sucking social media expert tells me, anyways. Something about, “You are what Google says you are.”) And Rome! Don’t even get me started…

So it’s off to Gaul and Africa to make the fine speeches–and today’s small town lawyer may have to settle for a couple of bottles of wine, or whatever their modern equivalent may be.

It turns out that one advantage to being a small town trial lawyer is that you find you’re already living in Gaul or Africa. You also find that your clients are more likely to be put out–not turned on–if you’re living like a lord. My clients want to be served, they want to trust me with their confidences and their livelihoods, and while they don’t mind if I like to make speeches from time to time, they’re more impressed by how I and the people I employ treat them and care about their problems.

Even before the Sarah Palin Experiment, I was wary of the glorification of things small-town. Years spent in purgatory at Winfield Elementary in Taylorsville, Maryland and then at Mt. Airy Middle School may have poisoned my mind toward small towns forever. It’s not that small-town people are any worse than cityfolk—they’re the same—or that they have limited exposure to people different from them and ideas different from theirs, but that they’re happy with—and even proud of—their limited exposure.

(Greeley is maybe not the best example of a small town. Wikipedia lists, among other notable Greeley residents, composers, authors, and the “Father of the Al Qaeda movement.” Its population is around 80,000 (that’s 15 LaGranges), and it’s within an hour of Denver (this may seem remote to my east-coast readers, but out west it’s almost a suburb; as easily as a Greeleyite can hop in a car and go to a show in Denver, a Denver lawyer can make a court appearance in Greeley)).

What about this thing about townfolk choosing counsel they can trust with their confidences and their livelihoods while big-city rubes pick the lawyer with the fanciest car?

There are and always will be many shallow people who, given the choice, will pick a lawyer based on flash. (I drive a car that, eight years, 120,000 miles, two wrecks and an engine transplant ago, I only half-jokingly called my “fee-setting car.”) Pressed to articulate, these shallow people might say that the lawyer with the flashier stuff “appears more successful” and therefore is likely better. This is no less true in small towns than in big cities.

There also will always be even more people, both in small towns and in big cities, who, given the choice, will choose the lawyer who can be trusted, who treats them well, and who picks up the phone when they call.

If people in a real small town (for example, Paul J. Smith’s Hearne, population 5,000 and 100+ miles from Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio) are less likely to hire a flashy lawyer, it’s not because they’re any smarter than city people, but because they don’t have the easy option. It’s a good option not to have, but it comes with tradeoffs; small-town clients have other problems to deal with.

I’ve defended people in towns both larger and smaller than Greeley, and I’ve observed what can pass for lawyering (and judging) when the pool of available talent is small. Sometimes a small pool is deep (witness country trial lawyer and rancher Paul J. Smith), but as a general rule the best lawyer in the small town will not be as talented, experienced, knowledgeable, or smart as the best lawyer in the big city.

I’ve also taken the telephone calls from distraught small-town mommas who, when they hired the prosecutor’s golf buddies or the judge’s former law partners, had naively hoped that their sons’ cases would take precedence over those relationships, rather than vice versa. But unfortunately the small-town lawyer is more likely to be beholden to the system, to the judge, and to opposing counsel than the big-city lawyer.

Both of these problems a level of difficulty to the hiring of a lawyer who can be trusted.

I’ve built my practice in the big city on principals of small-community client service, being available to clients just about whenever they need me; I answer my own phones, and I’m not averse to stopping and chatting with a client about his case if we meet while I’m out walking the dogs. I can envision definite benefits to being a lawyer in a small town.

But, just as not all small-town lawyers are second-rate go-along-to-get-along establishment stooges, not all small-town clients are in search of the excellent, conscientious, truth-telling lawyer.

People are the same wherever you go, and make the same mistakes.


0 responses to “Small-Town Client Myth”

  1. I was small-town born but I’ve lived in Houston, for all but just over a year, since 1983ish. My relatives call me the “big city lawyer”. Of course, most of them have not been to college & are raising their children in the ways of that racist small town.

    I sound small-town, especially after a visit “home” with family (and in particularly, my sister.) I have an accent that is somehow always guessed at least Texan, and by those in the real know, east Texan.

    I handle business like you do. My most recent trial was in a case where my client was accused of sexual assault by his granddaughter. (Technically it was his step-granddaughter but he had been in her mother’s life since her mother was 8 so . . .) Anyway, when they hired me & he told me he did not do it, I told him & his wife about what a trial would mean to their granddaughter. I meant it, and I did it. It is unfortunate that the prosecutor would not listen to reason before trial & I had to put 2 young girls through hell to get to the proper ending. (The jury hung but the case was dismissed.)

    I’m a little different in one aspect, though. I did get a new car. (Well, a new used car.) I love it! It has been my dream car since I was a kid, and my husband bought it for me. Before that, I drove a beat up pick-up (received in a divorce.) I’ve driven Ford Escort station wagons & mini vans most of my married (to the 1st husband) life – because I had children & I needed the money for private school & such. But I can relate to your car. : )

    I find that returning to my hometown to visit for business, I do get to “fit” in by talking about who I know, where I hung out, etc. at least for the initial visit. But, the last time I had business down there, I threatened to sue the DA’s office for refusing to turn over a file (upon a public information act request.) So, I’m regarded as a traitor by some & as a person who turned big city by others. (Funny, because my accent is stronger than some of theirs AND some of them didn’t come from there.)

    It used to be that hiring the local lawyer meant hands were greased & cases went away. I know for a fact that happened on a DWI someone close to me got many, many years ago when I was in law school. But, hiring the local small town lawyer more often means hiring the complacent person who just wants to go with the flow. I tell people, if you need to work out a great deal & there are no legal issues, then hire the local Joe. But, if you have issues or need a trial, hire someone outside of the local group. I know that I don’t care what they think except I will command their respect (whether they like it or not. I’m going to do a great job on behalf of my client.)

    Interesting spot which invokes thought. Thanks.

  2. “…as a general rule the best lawyer in the small town will not be as talented, experienced, knowledgeable, or smart as the best lawyer in the big city.”

    And as a small-town lawyer, I’ve had plenty of clients call me in distress because their big-city lawyers have ignored their calls, been condescending to the local judge, and bled them dry for months without making any progress. And from my experience, city lawyers are more beholden to city judges than their small-town counterparts.

    As a general rule, lawyers in multi-partner big city firms are better trained and have more resources than the small-town guys. But in a small town, they’re out of their element. I never played golf with my local justices, but I learned quickly what arguments worked with them, and what didn’t. Knowing what buttons to push, and which to leave alone, is worth a dozen paralegals and a hundred-page motion.

    Don’t be so condescending to the small guys…. most of them are better than you may think.

    • Dave,

      I’ve had the same calls you have, complaining about the same big-city arrogants and incompetents. The flip side to the particular generalization you’ve quoted is that the worst lawyers in the small town will be better than the worst in the big city.

      You’re reading condescension where there is none. It’s an uncomplicated question of mathematics: assuming that average lawyer quality is about the same in both city and country (that the best talent is not lured to the city over the small town any more or less than the worst is), there will be fewer lawyers at every level in the small town. If there’s one lawyer at a particular level in the big city, probability suggests that there will be none at that level in the small town.

      Besides, steel sharpens steel. If I’m fighting cases against a better lawyer, it makes me a better lawyer.

      Further, it’s easier for bad habits and ethical misconceptions to persist in a smaller community because it’s more likely that “everyone else is doing it.”

      Of course city lawyers are more beholden to city judges than their small-town counterparts are to city judges. If you were suggesting another generalization—that lawyers in the big city have more of a stake in pleasing, or at least not appearing foolish before, their judges than small-town lawyers have in pleasing or not appearing foolish before theirs?—I’m interested in your reasoning.

  3. Mark,

    I have to agree with your general rule that “the best lawyer in the small town will not be as talented, experienced, knowledgeable, or smart as the best lawyer in the big city.” Of course, being a general rule, there will be exceptions. But, as you point out, the lure of more money, more prestige, and more important clients will always attract better lawyers to big cities.

    Greeley is not nearly as small as when I grew up here, and I think you rightly point out that “small” or “big” are relative terms. Like you, I’ve tried cases in both the big city (Denver–which, like you said, might not be considered “big”) and I’ve tried cases in towns with a one-room courthouse and 5,000 residents in a good year. I don’t think there is anything inherently better about small towns or the people who live in them, and I have to agree with your description of some small town residents–who often think the path to a good result is hiring the judge’s golf-buddy–because that’s the way much is done in a small town. Often I’m hired to represent someone in a small town because I’m not a lawyer from that small town.

    My intention wasn’t to imply that small town clients are more virtuous than clients from bigger cities. I agree you can find many clients in the big city who are turned off by the “fancy pants, BMW-driving” lawyer, just like you can find plenty of small town clients who would wet themselves to hire one (if they can find and afford one, that is.)

    Ultimately, I more interested in the “small town lawyer” mindset–what you’ve described as “small-community client service.” I don’t think it matters if you’re a solo-practitioner or small-firm operating in a community of 5,000 people or 5,000,000 people. If you make your living by representing middle-class individual clients who pay you from their own pockets, you better have the “small town lawyer” mindset or you won’t be very successful–no matter how skilled a lawyer you may be.

    Thanks for reacting to my post.

    • “Small-community” was a bit of a cheat. My first formulation of that was “small-town,” but then I realized that I was sorta buying into the small-town mythology.

      What makes a difference, I think, is treating the client like a respected member of the lawyer’s community whose money was hard-earned. Maybe this is less avoidable for the guy in the town of 5,000 who actually knows every family in town, but it’s no harder for us big-city guys.

  4. I think a lot of people make the mistake of buying into a big-city, small-town mythology. I had a small – very small – town practice for several years, and saw several locals go to the city for a lawyer because they heard the stories that all the local lawyers, judges and cops in on everything together and all the trials were fixed beforehand (I singlehandedly proved that wrong, but that’s another story for another day).

    Yeah, I’m still a little sensitive to the small-town prejudices, but in the end, I think like real estate, it’s a matter of location. If I’m ever arrested in the city, I’ll hire a city lawyer. If I’m busted in the stix, I want a local guy there.

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