The Rewards of Being a Small Town Lawyer

Posted on Categories Alumni Contributor, Legal Practice, Legal Profession, Public, Uncategorized
A path forward with trees on either side going through a forest.
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

When asked to write a blog for the Marquette University Law School blog, I was provided several general topics that I could have considered, as I have never blogged.  But it was also suggested that I have an interesting personal story:  I always wanted to be a lawyer in my hometown, a city with fewer people than are enrolled as students at Marquette.  I have always had a desire to return to Ashland, Wisconsin, and practice law, raise my family and live the lifestyle that I enjoy.  I don’t find my situation to be unique or interesting, but maybe that’s because northern Wisconsin is such a wonderful location that it pulls many people home, and my story isn’t unique among residents here.  However, someone who grew up in an urban area may be apprehensive that there will be “nothing to do” in a small town.  To that I say: only boring people get bored.  So rather than discuss a legal topic, I plan to discuss my legal practice, and why being a small-town lawyer is a fulfilling and interesting career.  The State Bar of Wisconsin has also recently encouraged small town practice and tried to connect new lawyers or those looking for a change with lawyers in rural areas. Small towns need lawyers.

I grew up in Ashland, located on the shores of Lake Superior, enjoying the big lake and the big woods (Chequamegon National Forest). In the summer and fall the activities were hunting and fishing, in winter it was hockey rinks and ski slopes, and the in the spring, well that was just mud season.  I have been teased for the pride I take in talking about my home, my high school, and the general area I grew up in.  Unlike larger areas, my high school represents my community and is smaller than most.  Ashland has just over 8,000 people and the county has just twice that many.  There was no other high school, so it represented us as an area.  It represents my home, so I take pride in its success and sorrow in its failures.

In law school I had academic success having offers from large firms and was a summer associate at one.  I graduated magna cum laude and moved back to Ashland the day after being sworn in to the Bar.  While my big firm experience was positive, I knew my long-term happiness was north.  When asked why would you want to live up there, my response was typically the same: “Why do you vacation in northern Wisconsin?”  To many people, Elkhart Lake was “up north,” while I consider Highway 8 to be the dividing line between north and south Wisconsin.   I find cities great places to visit on weekends but I find the small town is the place to live.   I think many lawyers would find small town practice rewarding both professionally and personally.

My firm consists of four locally grown lawyers.  My partner was born and raised in the area and worked his way home after law school.  My soon to be partner grew up across the bay 11 miles away in Washburn and left a big firm job in New York to raise his family there.  My colleague, who is not a partner but I cannot call an associate as he was the Ashland County Judge for 25 years before retiring and joining us, also grew up in Ashland.  We all chose to return to our hometown for various reasons and have all found career success, a balance for our families, and most importantly satisfaction.  Our stories are not unique though, as many other attorneys in the area finished very high in their class (top 5 to 10 percent) and have chosen to be small town lawyers.

The Practice

Practicing in a small town allows you to choose many different areas of law.  It is hard to specialize due to the lack of a specialized volume that exists, but there are specialists in this area in elder law, criminal defense, and a few other areas.  Most lawyers are fairly general, however.  I practice criminal defense, family law, civil litigation, estate planning, and municipal law, among others.  I have practiced in bankruptcy and tribal courts too.  We have several Indian reservations near Ashland which allow interesting topics to arise related to their legal system and to jurisdictional issues between the tribes and state.  Very quickly after starting my practice I had my first jury trial.  Shortly after that I took on some appellate cases through the State Public Defender’s Office, taking one to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  My practiced has evolved as I have gained experience and reputation, helping me pick and choose more of the matters I wish to work on.

I am currently representing several municipalities, and I am the City Attorney for Ashland.  Traffic court can be interesting when one minute I am prosecuting someone and the next defending someone from a different prosecuting jurisdiction as everything is done in the circuit court. I have been able to represent every type of client from large corporations, to municipalities, the indigent, and multi-millionaires.  I have done multimillion-dollar transactions and small claims trials.  Small town practice has everything cities have.  The practice is interesting, fun, and I am always learning.

The collegiality amongst the local bar also makes the local practice enjoyable.  We play in a small sandbox when the Ashland-Bayfield County Bar Association is smaller than many Milwaukee and Madison law firms.  As we all play in that sand box, we find ways to get along without sacrificing our ethical responsibilities to our clients.  One of the attorneys I litigate the most against is on the same trap team with me.

As a small town lawyer, local leaders will look to you for civic engagement and service.  You will be asked to serve on boards for various entities.  It is rewarding work that often allows you to see immediate impact in the community you leave.  You do need to learn to say “no” though, as you will be asked a lot.  I find I am asked more for this service than I am donations for causes.  This service not only is just a good thing to do, it builds reputation without a marketing cost.

The Lifestyle

One of the perks in the way my bosses treated me when I returned to Ashland is that I have always felt like my own boss.  While you eat what you kill from a business perspective, the little things that make life great cannot be overlooked.  I have no traffic to fight to get to my office.  I step out my office door, look down the street, and I can see Lake Superior two blocks away.  I can go home for lunch.  Until my oldest children began school and my wife returned to work, I would often have lunch with my family or take the two-block walk and eat on a beach.  Even when I had to deal with a serious family health issue, the colleagues in the local bar were supportive and rallied around to make sure my clients were taken care of and that any deadlines that I were extended with very little effort on my part.  If I want to go fishing after work, I can go home, hook up a boat trailer and be in the water within 30 minutes.  If I forget something at the office, I can ride my bike there in 10 minutes.

Society tends to promote the four-year bachelor’s degree as the proper post-high-school course of education, and law school culture often promotes the big firm, big-city job as the “proper” career path.  While it is an over-generalization, many people feel that they should pursue that path and chase highly competitive jobs.  The reality is that many people should be encouraged to join the trades at the high school level.  Those jobs are needed, they are well paying, and those are the jobs that will make certain people happier.   While I was very grateful for my time at the large Milwaukee firms while I was at in law school, and I would have enjoyed working in the culture of those specific firms, my calling was north and to home for the lifestyle that truly makes me happy.

Admittedly, anyone who starts up here will likely earn significantly less than taking a job at a large firm.  But for other positions, the wages will be competitive.  While you may not have the same income, there are certain costs, such as housing and other things, that will be cheaper.  You will find satisfaction in building relationships with your clients immediately as opposed to working for partners.  You will be welcomed as a colleague in the local bar.  You will find that if you enjoy outdoor activities, you will never be bored, between the forests, lakes, mountain bike trails and other recreational opportunities.  If you have a family, you will be available to enjoy little moments with them.  A city does not offer more opportunities, it just offers different opportunities.  Your life will be enriched in many ways if you don’t need the amenities of a city.

Speaking of amenities, you will find a surprising amount of cultural activities between the tourist and tribal communities.  In my area, people often know the Apostle Islands and Big Top Chautauqua (a venue that gets national music acts), but we also have Northland College, a bachelor degree granting institution that brings a college culture with events and athletics (I even was an adjunct professor for a term).  There is wonderful local community theater, marathons, large events (such as the American Birkebeiner ski race), and small festivals.  The tribal communities bring diversity and share their tribal culture with the broader community as well.

That’s not to say new people would not find challenges in a small town.  We do lack being near an airport for commercial flights.  Some new arrivals find it hard to meet people.  But I think that if you get involved in things, or service clubs or sports groups, you will make friends.  Small towns are not perfect and not perfect for everyone, but ask yourself if that 45 minute commute in bumper to bumper traffic is perfect way to spend 1.5 hours of your life daily.

The most important thing I have found living in a small town is that it is easier to take advantage of those small amounts of time to be with your family.  I can come home, spent an hour with my kids, and drive back to my office to prepare for a trial when necessary as it only takes me 5 minutes to get home.  In my 11 years home, I have had 5 children, become the city attorney, become a business owner, served on several non-profit boards, purchased my forever home, and am genuinely satisfied in my life.  I don’t regret doing a rural practice for a minute.

I would encourage anyone unhappy in a more urban area or who enjoys a slower pace of life and outdoor recreation to consider practicing in a small town.  New graduates will find small towns welcoming, and local attorneys are willing to offer friendly advice.   When looking at articles on what makes lawyers happy, you will find many of these factors in a rural practice.

Legal services are needed everywhere.  In a rural area you can build your practice in the subjects you desire, and you will find a rich and fulfilling career and lifestyle.  As the State Bar is noticing, many rural areas have aging lawyers without new ones moving in.  I did not choose an area of practice as I didn’t think a practice area would make me happy.  I chose where I wanted to live, as I knew how I wanted to spend my time when I wasn’t working.  I pursued what I knew would make me happy.  In doing so, I learned I could build the practice I wanted while still getting the lifestyle I wanted.

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