Don’t Forget the Small Towns

Posted on Categories Legal Practice

It is a commonly held belief among law students that practicing law in a small town is boring and not sufficiently rewarding from a financial standpoint.

That simply is not true.

A really good lawyer will do well almost any place. If you are not going to strive to be a really good lawyer, you won’t do well any place.

If you go to a small town to practice you will be surprised, if you have patience, just what you will find.

For 43 years I have practiced in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a town of about 45,000. For most of that time the majority of my practice was business law with an emphasis on mergers and acquisitions, but I also did a fair amount of estate planning and real estate. After my first five years of practice, this is all that I did. 

To give two examples, for most of that time I represented a cable television/radio station company that owned cable systems over much of the United States and as many as seven radio stations in the Midwest. There were 450 cable franchises at one time. I handled the purchase of all of them and ultimately handled the sale of most of them. I was also on their board, and the owner became one of my closest friends and still is today.

I also represented a manufacturing company that manufactured seating and décor mainly for McDonald’s and other Quick Service restaurants around the world. I also sat on their board, and their owner also became one of my closest friends and still is today.

These are just two examples. There are many more.

The naysayers are going to say this is an exception. I think that’s baloney. I know many very successful lawyers in the small towns of Wisconsin that are just as or more successful than I was.

Now these things don’t happen by sitting back and waiting for the clients to come to you. That will not happen unless they think that you are the best lawyer they can find for what they need. You have to do all that is required to become the best lawyer they can find and figure out a subtle way to let them know. Putting an ad in the Yellow Pages simply won’t do. You need to get involved in the community. This means everything from the Chamber of Commerce; the YMCA; your church, mosque or synagogue; the Rotary Club; and many other community service activities. This will make you feel good, you will make many friends, and it is much more effective than advertising. And, if you are lucky you will even help someone at the same time.

And if they engage you, even for a menial task, you must treat them exceptionally well. They will then come back and use you more and more. Helping them with ordinary legal services in an ordinary way won’t cut it. They must receive extraordinary service with the highest standards of scholarship and care.

You will make more money than you ever dreamed of. In a small town, lawyers are still respected. You will be a leader of your community. They are wonderful places to raise a family. Lawyers in a small town are more civil and less contentious. You will have a very satisfying life.

Don’t forget the small towns of Wisconsin.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Forget the Small Towns”

  1. This is a very interesting post. I agree with the general premise that small towns are often overlooked by lawyers as viable practice locations. I also think your advice is very good, particularly getting involved in the community.

    Is Fond du Lac really a “small town” though? I would not think of a city like Fond du Lac when talking about small-town lawyers. At ~45,000 residents, Fond du Lac is the 15th largest city in the state and is growing faster than most other areas (having jumped up from the 18th largest city in 1980). It’s also in the corridor between the two largest population centers in the state – SE Wisconsin and Fox Valley/Green Bay – enjoying easy access to both.

  2. Louie,

    There is an old adage that with one lawyer in town, she starves, with two both prosper. That may say something about the size of towns where practice is possible.

    Of course, these days practicing in a small town still allows the lawyer a broad subject matter and geographic area of representation.

    Back when I was in practice — just after the era of horse & buggy! — my firm had as a client a lawyer from your neck of the woods who had sensational clients. Every time the lawyer had one of us associates do some work for one of his clients, one of the partners would come around and ask if we had any contact with his clients. I don’t think any of us ever did, but his clients involved him in the broadest array of legal work.

  3. I went to a law school that assumed most of its graduates would go on to work in large law firms or at else major corporations. That assumption influenced many things about the legal education that I received.

    One reason why I chose to teach here at Marquette (joining the faculty in 1992), as opposed to some other law school, was because the law faculty here have traditionally assumed that a substantial percentage of our graduates will work in solo or small office practices throughout the state. I am pleased to teach at an institution that cares about producing ethical, competent leaders of the profession who will be an asset to their local coummunity.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am proud of our graduates who go to the big firms. However, I believe that the recognition that many of our lawyers will practice law away from the major urban areas of Wisconsin has postiively influenced the kind of legal education that we seek to provide.

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