'We Know Our Clients'
The joys and concerns (mostly joys) of being a rural lawyer
Published in 2020 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on March 1, 2020
Updated on March 4, 2020
While practicing in Atlanta for 27 years, Ralph Ellis, a Social Security disability, workers’ comp and real estate lawyer with an eponymous firm, would spend many weekends in a log cabin his grandparents built in Clayton. In the spring of 2019, the small town’s pull just became too great.
“As John Muir wrote, ‘The mountains are calling and I must go,’” Ellis says with a smile.
In Clayton, population 2,250, Ellis has kept that smile. “My rent is approximately one-third of the amount that I paid for a penthouse office in Buckhead, and my current space is more spacious and just as nice,” he says. “I have a five-minute stress-free drive to my favorite barbecue place, Wiley Junction BBQ, in Wiley, Georgia, for lunch. The same distance would be an epic journey of over 30 minutes in Atlanta with all of the congestion and traffic lights.”
Metro areas are obviously attractive places for lawyers to practice—especially newly minted attorneys looking to land positions at big firms. This creates a quandary for rural populations.
“Georgia is the largest state geographically east of the Mississippi,” says Linda Klein, a past president of the American Bar Association, “but seventy-plus percent of the lawyers are in metro Atlanta. So that leaves large portions of the state [with access-to-justice issues]. Last I heard we had seven counties with zero lawyers.”
“In these areas,” says Kathryn Childs Dove of the Dove Law Firm in Ocilla (population 3,627), “there is a shortage of attorneys who come back to open a practice. Very few people move here who aren’t from the area, but also folks who graduate from the local high school and go off to college and then law school are rarely returning to the rural areas to practice.”
But for those who do move away from cities, practicing law in rural settings offers significant attractions.
For Dove, it’s all about the relationships. “We know our clients,” she says. “Our kids go to school together, we go to church together, we see them at the ball field. And it’s the same way with the courts, with their staff, with law enforcement. We develop these close relationships and it helps us advise our clients because we can predict—usually fairly well—how a court is likely to rule on an issue.”
If Ronald Daniels were in an urban area, he would probably focus on one practice area. But at Daniels Law in Eastman, population 5,100, he has become a general practitioner almost by necessity. “You get everything from a business dispute to somebody having a personal injury matter to somebody not knowing how to probate grandma’s estate,” he says. “The most enjoyable thing to me is that you get such a diverse group of people that come see you for a diverse set of problems.”
Even when rural lawyers do specialize, they are often required to wear many hats. “We’ve got an excellent personal injury practice,” says Jeffrey Helms of the Helms Law Firm in Homerville, population 2,400. “But I’m also the city attorney, general counsel to the local hospital authority and general counsel to the local electrical co-op. I do that at reduced rates because I view it as an obligation—a civic duty to help out the local governmental boards as much as possible.”
Both Helms and his wife started out practicing in Atlanta before the move. “Now we live on a farm, and we raise cattle and work in our organic vegetable garden,” he says.
There are drawbacks. With a smaller population to pull from, rural lawyers must be diligent with conflict-of-interest checks, going through long lists of uncles, cousins and running buddies. And in such a close-knit community, clocking out at the office rarely stops people from asking for advice.
“Every professional has had an issue at some point with friends and family coming up and saying, ‘Hey, let me ask you a legal question,’” says Dove. “It comes up more often with us because we have these intimate relationships and cross paths with these folks on a daily basis.”
“You may have more situations arise where you’ve got simple legal problems that don’t require a lawyer but just require somebody to point them in the right direction more often than not,” Daniels adds.
Some small towns can be too small. For Gus McDonald, his product liability firm in the town of Alto (population 1,177) is more of a home base than a storefront. “If you know where the movie Deliverance was filmed, that’s about 30 minutes from where I’m at,” he says. “There’s not much of a defective-product practice going on here in Alto. You can represent the dogcatcher or you can represent the person who got bit by the dog, and that’s about it.”
Instead, McDonald spends much of his time in other states to take depositions and attend court. And when he’s back in Alto putting his cases together, he can do so in a slow-paced, stress-free environment. Plus he relishes the opportunity to take on that rare case in a local venue. “Every now and then you’ll get lucky and you’ll have a case where you can gerrymander local jurisdiction so you can dish out some home cooking to those defense lawyers that usually try to give it to you,” he says.
For most attorneys, a sizable client base is a requisite. So rural lawyers often either have national practices, like McDonald, or operate regional practices that serve multiple counties. The question is: How do you get the word out?
“Internet marketing is absolutely necessary if you’re going to have a thriving practice,” says Daniels. “But rural Georgia is still an area where you may consider, ‘Hey, is it worthwhile putting an ad in the phone book? Is it worthwhile putting an ad in print papers or things of that nature? Or buying fans for the football team to pass out during football games with your name and number on them?’ Those sorts of old-school marketing are still viable options because not everybody has a broadband internet connection. You may have a super-duper website that 50% of the people living in a rural county can’t even pull up.”
Modern technology does make it easier for country lawyers to seek out expert witnesses and keep up with their continuing education. As one of 25 attorneys appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court as a special master in professional ethics cases, Helms is required to attend training every two years to keep himself current. “I’m able to do that training by webinar,” he says. “It used to entail traveling four hours to Atlanta and spending the night, being there all day, and then driving back. So the internet has changed the practice of law for rural practitioners who choose to take advantage of it.”
Assistance can also be gained through the typical legal organizations. “I think it’s very important that lawyers in rural areas take advantage of what bar associations have to offer,” says Klein. “A bar association can not only give you academic help for your cases, but being part of a bar association, you can get all kinds of buying power—health insurance, retirement plans and so on.”
“There’s a perception that if you’re practicing law way out in the rural areas, you’re not going to have exciting and challenging work,” says Helms. “But you can have as sophisticated a law practice as you want outside of a big city if you’re willing to work hard and do a good job.”
Number of active attorneys in the following Georgia counties:
- 3: Atkinson, Lanier, Talbot
- 2: Brantley, Macon, Marion
- 1: Calhoun, Chattahoochee, Glascock, Johnson, Montgomery, Quitman, Taliaferro, Twiggs, Wheeler, Wilcox
- 0: Baker, Clay, Echols, Long, Schley, Webster
- The Georgia county with the most attorneys is Fulton, 14,380, or about one for every 72 residents.
Source: State Bar of Georgia County Report, December 2019