Practice on the Frontier: Vignettes of Small Town Life by George W. Shanks

George ShanksAs I approach the end of four decades of the practice of law and I think back on the kaleidoscope of cases and characters I have encountered, the common theme of my memories is the experience of the practice of law in a small town. And I truly mean a small town. I was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware — a city of one hundred thousand. I lived in Buffalo, New York, and attended law school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I started my practice in Winchester, which by my standards still qualifies as “the big city.” For another four years, I toiled on Capitol Hill in Washington, which only served to reinforce my Jeffersonian bias that all big cities are “pestilential.” But for the last thirty-three years, I have been in Luray, legal and cultural center of Page County, the self-styled “Cabin Capital of Virginia.”

During that time, I have seen the population of the county mushroom by nearly five thousand souls. We now approach the magical twenty-five thousand population total that will entitle the board of supervisors to a statutory pay raise, should they choose to bestow it upon themselves. At the same time, I have seen industry come and go (mostly go), even as our neighboring jurisdictions blossomed and flourished with economic development and all of the attendant joys and sorrows of population and transportation issues that are the handmaidens of the goddess Fortuna.

Through it all, Page County has remained relatively unchanged, unspoiled, unyielding in its conservatism, and unfazed by the maelstrom of activity outside its borders. In truth, life in this community off the beaten path is like Brigadoon without the sinking feeling.

In my first office in Luray — a garage that had been converted into a tiny two-room bungalow in the 1940s and was locally know as “the honeymoon cottage” for its original occupants — I was quickly to learn two truths about practice of law in a small town. The first was when an older attorney from out of the area dropped by after one Motions Day to visit my new chambers and receive the obligatory ten-second inspection. The attorney announced sagely, “Good! You have a back door. Every attorney should have a back door.” I didn’t fully appreciate the observation until my client base had grown a bit, although the back door was so close to the front door that using it in complete silence was an acquired skill. The second truth about practicing law in a small town (and it also involved the back door) was that during the moderate days of summer — in my first summer of practice they all had to be moderate, since I couldn’t afford air conditioners — you could open the back door and smell the delicious aroma of the honeysuckle growing on the fence posts along the alley behind my office. I cannot tell you the names of all of my clients that first year, but I can smell today that delectable fragrance.

I remember, too, the sounds of my children’s laughter as they played in the side yard between my office and our residence, fifty feet away. That sound, like the fragrance, is a gift bestowed only on those practitioners fortunate enough to practice close to home, at ground level, with windows that actually open, and with young children who think playing in the side yard is actually fun. (Remember, this is before Nintendo, PlayStation, home computers, MTV, and iPods.)

There is something about lawyering, more than any other vocation, in a small town that provides instant community-wide recognition. Well, maybe the greeters at Walmart are right up there, but they tend to be on the steep down slope of the work force. Being a big fish in a small pond can make up for a lack of local extended family. It took me decades to create a family in this rural county, and I am confident that after another quarter century I will still be counted among those who are “not from around here.” Nevertheless, I have felt a part of the ebb and flow of this small community from the first day. (Getting ripped off by the local artisans everyone else knew to avoid was part of it, but that is quite another story.)

My children always knew that their presence and passing was noted (and monitored). Even it occasionally chafed when they were asked, “Is Lawyer Shanks your daddy?,” it was precisely what I had hoped to achieve when moving to a small town. The politics of Hillary Clinton’s book aside, the vigilance that expanded communities afford to energetic, exploring children can be a source of reassurance in the uncertain world of modern-day parenting.

As I was going through my closed cards the other day looking for an ancient file, it struck me that I had represented well over 15 percent of the countywide population during my practice here on the frontier. Attorneys in the big city touch just as many lives, to be sure, but they don’t see them over and over again in their daily travels. To run into former clients — and, truth be known, opponents of former clients — in the grocery store check-out line, at the Tastee Freez when you’re taking the family out for a summer eve’s cone, or while ordering take-out Chinese, is a reminder of just how many lives we touch as we ply our profession. It is a source of both accomplishment and satisfaction and a constant reminder of the profound influence we wield as practitioners of the law.

The same is true of your relationship with your colleagues at the bar. I cannot recall when I first felt a genuine sense of collegial atmosphere within the bar — I feel sure it was before I sat down to write this piece, maybe even before the last time one of my learned colleagues drew to the court’s attention how little I really knew about the law. In a small town, the contacts between attorneys are frequent, the characters genuine, the foibles endearing. Affectations and phrases of colleagues become sources of amusement, even comfort, as litigation takes its otherwise unpredictable twists and turns. And while the pressures of practice are no different in a small town, the “devil on my shoulder” desire to burn bridges and scorch earth, of necessity, is. When you see the same small cadre of lawyers (and judges) on a daily basis, when you come to realize how quickly Fortune’s smile can fade from cause to cause and from client to client, and when you commit breaches of collegial etiquette, the results (and the lessons) are immediate. You either learn from them or go in search of a more impersonal venue.

Moreover, seeing your colleagues someplace else besides “the pit” makes the courtroom wounds less permanent. Next week, instead of sulking about some slight — real or imagined — you will be sharing the pride of opposing counsel’s child’s band solo or gridiron success or science fair award. And to appreciate the essential sameness in an adversary, to share his experiences, to personalize him, is to make peace, with him and with yourself.

There are some unhappy realities to the practice of law in a small town, the frequency of conflicts being principal among them. When your client base draws from a population of twenty-five thousand or fewer you are constantly confronted with people you have represented or opposed, or their families, or their associates. Prior privileged knowledge can and frequently does require a close ethical inspection in criminal, domestic relations, and personal injury practice. And the client base is not unfamiliar with the ground rules, as I was amazed to learn many years ago. After giving some “emergency” legal advice to a potential domestic relations client on my front porch one Sunday afternoon, I soon discovered that the interview had been replicated four more times that day. In one brief afternoon’s work, all the local attorneys doing the contested divorce trade had been trumped from representing the other party. The case developed into a protracted, expensive bloodbath, but I was not involved, nor were most of my colleagues.

This is the other reality of the “unearned retainer” debate that seldom gets much mention, much less support: in a small community, being associated with a cause or a client has an immediate far-reaching ripple effect. If you are representing an unhappy spouse, you are not likely to be seeing any of the client’s in-laws in DUI, criminal, real estate, wills and estates, worker’s compensation, Social Security, or personal injury matters — at least until the dust settles and, perhaps, for years after.

Another aspect unique to small-town practice is free advice. I’m not talking about being buttonholed at Rotary Club or while coming out of church. I speak of “drop-ins,” those who, as my dear legal assistant of twenty years used to say, “just want to speak a word with you.” In the metropolitan areas where people are trained to endure the sacrosanct schedules of everyone from lawyers to the plumber, camping out in someone’s lobby for an unscheduled half-hour interruption is the height of folly. In a small town, it is acceptable behavior and its rejection is treated with wounded scorn (and see the preceding paragraph for all those who will feel similarly rejected). The problem is compounded by the fact that these unexpected would-be clients often have the most delightful stories to relate (not that you can do anything to alleviate their legal woes). To turn them away in the name of the clock is to deny yourself a glimpse of the rich texture of small-town fabric. Of course, you are well advised to keep a can of aerosol spray in your drawer; many of the drop-ins coincide with stock sale day.

Closely aligned with the free advice crowd is the unpaid-fee group which, as you learn by the school of hard knocks, should dwindle over the course of your small-town practice to a manageable number no longer approximating the first mortgage on your home. But unlike the experience of our city friends, these folks will return. Believe me, they will return. After they have stiffed all the other soft hearts in the bar, you will see them again — probably in more dire circumstances than last time, and definitely more contrite. Exacting a fee under these circumstances ought to be the subject of a special ethical admonition, so delectable is the experience. In a big city, you couldn’t live that long.

Resistance to change is another enduring part of the practice of law in a small town. With the construction of the Walmart, we gained another stoplight in the county. Now there are six green-yellow-red lights in the county (there were three when I arrived). You might think that such an environment would make the personal injury trade shrivel like a ten-year-old too long in the pool. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the change-resistant factor has made the one dual highway bisecting the county a fertile source of litigation, invariably involving a befuddled visitor, usually from another time zone, and a local who simply can’t get used to the dual highway that got put in back in the 1960s.

The mantra of change resistance — “That’s the way we’ve always done it around here” — or its equally evil twin — “That’s not the way we do it around here” — is also fertile ground for the zoning/building code/municipal law/real estate/right-of-way practice. Even folks who have lived here for generations don’t like to be crowded by bureaucrats or anyone who disrespects a boundary line or a right-of-way, however tenuous the basis.

Finally, of course, there is technological change. Most of the local bar now possess fax machines and cell phones. We have computers, scanners, and digital cameras. Sometimes we even use them in our practice (not the cell phones — in the mountains, they’re about as reliable as tin cans and waxed strings). But mostly, we pass along vital information over the counters in the record room of the clerk’s office or in the parking lot beside the courthouse. Even in this e-world, word of mouth still sets the small-town standard: “Good news travels fast; bad news travels faster.”

My young associate constantly remarks that I seem to know “everything.” I have to smile benignly, recalling that when I was his age, I, too, knew very little and understood almost everything. I find now that the more I learn, the less I understand. If I practice long enough, I suppose I will know everything and understand absolutely nothing. But that’s okay, because in a small town, while the world swirls around us, we all grow old together at the same pace and hardly notice the change.

© 2009 George W. Shanks
George W. Shanks is a partner of Miller, Earle & Shanks PLLC in Luray, VA, and is past-chair of the Virginia State Bar Conference of Local Bar Associations and Senior Lawyers Conference, serves on the Virginia State Bar Council, and is a member of the Executive Committee.

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Updated: May 25, 2011