When I began this book project, I was more curious about small-town law practice than knowledgeable. I had a notion that small-town practice could be a viable alternative for attorneys burned out by big-city practice, as well as attorneys who were just starting out. I derived that from my long experience advising and assisting lawyers with their career transitions. But that was where my knowledge ended.
What began as an opinion became something much more as my research proceeded. Despite randomly selecting all but two of the many attorneys I interviewed, I had the same difficulty that Diogenes confronted 2,500 years ago when he took up his lantern and wandered throughout Greece searching for an honest man. In my case, however, I searched for an unhappy small-town lawyer, the archetype that dominated my primarily big-city legal career counseling practice. I kept running into highly contented attorneys, satisfied with their lives and enjoying their practices, appreciative of the opportunity to live in a moderately paced milieu and serve clients that, for the most part, they genuinely liked. The attractiveness of small-town law practice today is reflective of larger demographic and attitudinal changes affecting American society in general. This book goes into some depth about these transformations.
Small-town America is not what it used to be. And that is, for the most part, a good thing. The transportation and communications revolutions have “homogenized” our country to such an extent that the advantages and amenities of metropolitan areas have crossed the divide and spread into less populous regions. Cable TV, the Internet, chain stores, good restaurants, multiplex cinemas, and the dispersion of quality entertainment and intellectual fodder even into remote locales is nothing short of remarkable. The community that is the centerpiece of this book has a huge concert shell that gets many of the same artists that appear in New York, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco (it recently hosted Willie Nelson, the Dave Matthews Band, and Yo Yo Ma, among others). If you happen to settle in a small college town—and more than 2,000 fit that definition—you can find many additional opportunities for stimulation in the programs, people, and events available on and around campus.
Small-town America is still very much underserved by the legal community. Moreover, housing is affordable, commuting to and from work is a non-issue, and schools have fewer problems than their urban counterparts, albeit drugs, sex, violence, and concerns about educational quality have also made their way into the youth population in small towns.
Practicing Law in Small-Town America (1) paints a picture of what small-town practice is like in its rich diversity; (2) examines how local practitioners got to where they are; and (3) distills from (1) and (2) what an aspiring small-town lawyer needs to know and do in order to locate in—or relocate to—a small community.
This book presents practical advice on how to identify a small town or rural location in which to practice law and how to launch and build such a practice, with descriptive and anecdotal material about specific communities and their practitioners. Part 1 sets the scene. Part 2 zeros in on the experiences of specific small-town lawyers. Part 3 discusses the strategies and tactics gleaned from the attorneys featured in Part 2, as well as from my legal career counseling clients, concerning “how to get there.” The six Appendices contain extensive information about resources that are useful in arriving at a decision about whether to pursue a small-town lifestyle and practice.
Appendix B, “A Small-Town Due Diligence Checklist,” merits special attention. You will read a lot about the critical importance of doing your due diligence regarding practice areas, locations, industries, and prospective employers in these pages. This is primarily because attorneys are very good at performing due diligence investigations on behalf of their clients, but all too often they overlook doing it for themselves when their own careers are at stake.
Canandaigua, New York, where I grew up, serves as the book’s microcosm of both small-town America and small-town law practice. It is a vibrant, progressive little city of 10,500 surrounded by farm country, more than 30 miles from the nearest city of significant size—Rochester. It is, however, decidedly not a Rochester suburb. Canandaigua is the county seat of a sparsely populated county and a summer resort community. Moreover, the town has a rich history—and legal history—dating back to before the early days of the nation. This history (see Appendix F) informs much about its current society and its bar.
Canandaigua and its county (Ontario) have always been meccas for lawyers and lawyer-politicians from the very beginning in the late 1780s. The local lawyers there today are very diverse, including recent grads and soon-to-be retirees; attorneys who came home to practice after law school, as well as those from elsewhere who settled there; a strong representation of both young and “seasoned” women lawyers; a legal community consisting of a wide diversity of practices, including solo practitioners, very small firms, satellite offices of larger firms, the in-house counsel offices of a major corporation and a dynamic community bank, a prosecutor’s office and public defender office, a county attorney’s office, and a legal aid office. All of these are covered in this book.
All communities are shaped by their histories, Canandaigua and Ontario County to a great extent. Over the 223 years since its founding, Canandaigua has produced 10 congressmen, two United States senators, two U.S. postmaster-generals, two secretaries of war, one secretary of the treasury, an undersecretary of commerce, a candidate for president and one for vice president of the United States, a New York governor, a modern-era gubernatorial nominee, and Henry W. Johnson, one of the first African-American attorneys in the United States. Johnson moved to Liberia in 1862, where he served as that country’s Attorney General. In Canandaigua, Johnson was a barber by day while reading law at night in Walter Hubbell’s law office, the same place where the “Little Giant,” Stephen A. Douglas, read the law. Hubbell was the great-great-grandson of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the author of the well-worn phrase, “a shining city upon a hill.”
Nearby Geneva, New York, was home to another secretary of the treasury.
This region was the epicenter of the woman’s rights movement; the heart of the temperance movement; a ferment of antebellum abolition; a key way station on the Underground Railroad; the pivot point of anti-Masonry, the political precursor of Whiggism and the Republican Party; and the place of origin of two global religions and the jumping-off point for a third, as well as a hotbed of innumerable other religions, cults, and sects that roiled the nation in the 19th century.
It is a history that many local legal practitioners know a lot about and love to discuss. As do their clients. Both groups take pride in it, and it came up frequently during my interviews. You will find some of the key moments in this history interspersed in the pages that follow, as well as in Appendix F.
Several of this country’s landmark trials took place in the Ontario County Courthouse in Canandaigua: An epic challenge to the notorious Fugitive Slave Law five years before Dred Scott. v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court; the trial and conviction of Susan B. Anthony for her suffragette activities; and a case that settled a major question regarding riparian rights.
During its heyday, it is not a stretch to say that Canandaigua was the capital of America’s Western frontier when today’s nearby big cities did not exist: Rochester was a swamp, Syracuse a salt marsh, and Buffalo a tiny Indian village. Notwithstanding its generally patriotic orientation, manifested in Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, and Fourth of July parades and other ceremonial rituals that evoke intense expressions of patriotism, the region is also marked by rugged, sometimes contrarian individualism. In the early 1800s, a secessionist movement in the region had to be suppressed by force. Perhaps that was what attracted Daniel Shays, leader of Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts, the 1786–87 uprising that had to be put down by federal troops, to retire to the region. After his pardon in 1788, Shays relocated to Conesus, New York (25 miles southwest of Canandaigua) and is buried there.
The past is always prologue, and an appreciation for small-town history can be important to your livelihood. Big cities are all about now. That is not the case in smaller communities, where transients do not predominate and where roots and an appreciation for local history and its influence on the present go back a long way.
Canandaigua also represents many of the phenomena that attract attorneys to small communities, namely a slower pace of life, scenic beauty, low cost of living, the possibility of work-life balance, and both recreational and cultural offerings that rival much larger communities.
The book mixes in descriptions and stories of local practice from several other small towns around the country, too, in a bow to both geographic and demographic diversity.
In summary, there is a lot about small towns to recommend to attorneys seeking something different from the more customary big-city career route. Small towns present an opportunity for you to find your legal “voice” in ways that might not be available in a larger environment.
My hope is that, in reading this book, you will have a clearer picture of what you yourself might be able to do with your career if you are so inclined, and of the surprisingly interesting opportunities that exist beyond “metro-America.”
Finally, a word about my qualifications for writing this book. Throughout this book, I draw contrasts and make comparisons between big-city and small-town practice, and I have probably had as much exposure to both as anyone. I spent most of my career in a large city and numbered among my clients several thousand big-city lawyers, from solo practitioners to managing partners of major national law firms, as well as Fortune 500 corporate lawyers, government attorneys, and counselors at nonprofit organizations of all types. At the same time, many of my other clients were small-town lawyers.
Growing up in a small town, I was able to both observe local mores and interact with local practitioners. I topped off my personal experience with extensive interviews with small-town attorneys and judges, all of whom are featured in Part Two of this book.