Small-Town Client Myth

 Posted on September 30, 2009 in Uncategorized

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.

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