GPSOLO July - August 2008
Practicing Law in a Small Town
I have been extremely fortunate as a lawyer. I made one of those life-changing decisions when I graduated from law school in 1982. I made the decision to move to a small town in western Oklahoma. While I was attending law school, it seemed as if everyone wanted to practice with a large firm or return home to practice law with a relative or family friend. I am the first lawyer in my family, and I didn’t know any other lawyers. I knew that I did not want to practice in a large firm or in a large city. Honestly, the law school placement office wasn’t much help in that area. I literally got out a map of Oklahoma and circled five towns I thought I might like to live in for different reasons.
I wrote a letter to every lawyer in all five towns. Of course, I didn’t get any responses. I followed up my letters with telephone calls. That wasn’t much better. I finally called Joe McMillin in Weatherford. He said he had my letter and had been intending to call me. He had been thinking about finding a recent law school graduate to practice with but didn’t really know how to go about it. I had never been to Weatherford, but I thought I might like the town because of its size and the fact that it had a college. So I went there to see for myself. I found that I liked the town, and more importantly, I really liked Joe.
I was extremely fortunate for the opportunity to work with Joe. His special talent was his ability to teach someone how to practice law. He taught me how to get along with other lawyers, how to get clients, and all about the business side of the profession. I am eternally grateful and forever indebted to Joe.
One thing I learned while practicing with Joe: In order to be successful in a small-town practice, you must be available. You have to keep regular office hours. You have to be willing to talk to people at the grocery store, at the dry cleaners, and everywhere else for that matter. You have to be visible in the community. You should join civic clubs and local boards such as the YMCA.
I have been a sole practitioner since Joe moved to Palm Springs, California, in 1998, and in that time I have seen how critically important it is for small-town lawyers to develop a good relationship with other lawyers in the area. I am fortunate to practice in Custer County, Oklahoma. We have excellent judges and excellent lawyers. I am proud to say that we practice a very high quality of law here. You will never know all there is about the practice of law, and one of the best things about practicing in a small town is the friendliness of the other lawyers and their willingness to lend a hand. I call on my colleagues C. B. Graft, Denny Meacham, and Pat Cornell for help all the time.
If you are just starting out in a rural area, I would suggest you meet all of the other lawyers and give them your business card. You may find this leads to new cases. For instance, many older lawyers want to have more of an office practice. They don’t practice domestic or criminal law to any large extent. If they know there is a new lawyer in the area who is friendly and nice, they just might refer those cases to you.
If you are going to be successful, you have to network. Join and be active in your county and state bar associations. Join a committee or section. Volunteer for everything. Run for a leadership position. Show the other lawyers you understand that the practice of law is a profession and that you are willing to be Law Day chairman, president of your county bar association, and anything else that comes along. You will be amazed by the number of referrals you will get.
It is also important to be on good terms with the local judiciary. Our district judge, Charles Goodwin, always has been helpful to young lawyers. He will never let a young lawyer get into too much trouble in his courtroom. He taught me the importance of reading all of the recent court decisions published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard him say in court on Monday after getting the bar journal that morning, “Counsel, I guess you haven’t read your bar journal. The Court of Criminal Appeals won’t let us do that anymore.”
Take court appointments, as that is a way to get courtroom experience. In the beginning, experience is just as important, or maybe more important, than making a lot of money.
You probably won’t get rich practicing law in a small town, but if you work hard, you will be able to make a good living and make a difference in your clients’ lives.
Stephen D. Beam practices law as a solo in Weatherford, Oklahoma. He may be reached at email@example.com.