Published in 2023 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine
By Nancy Henderson on July 10, 2023
When Brian Elkins visits his hometown of Priest Lake, Idaho, he prefers to forgo the winding, 10-hour drive north from his practice in Ketchum and instead fly a small plane over the rugged mountains and deep canyons of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, so named for the days when boats were unable to navigate the fast-moving current upstream. Each summer, the criminal defense attorney can be found paddling the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and in winter, he often skis Bald Mountain.
“That’s been a huge blessing in my life, being able to do all those sorts of things when I’m not practicing law,” says Elkins.
Here, Elkins and three other attorneys from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming talk about the benefits of a rural firm and what it’s like to practice law in their small towns. Half cut their legal teeth in big cities; the other half started out close to home. All are happy right where they are.
Brian Elkins, Brian E. Elkins, P.C.; Criminal Defense; Ketchum, Idaho: I actually grew up on a lake way up in the Northern Panhandle. My grandfather started a resort up there back in the 1930s, so I grew up cleaning cabins and washing dishes and delivering wood. In the summer, in Priest Lake, you would get between 10,000 to 15,000 tourists during high peak. In winter, in Ketchum, there could be an additional 5,000 up on Bald Mountain.
Michelle Ostrye, Ostrye Law Firm; Wills/Estates/Property transactions; Fort Benton, Montana: I grew up on a farm about 80 miles from Fort Benton, in Hobson. They’re pretty similar. Both are agricultural areas with the same kinds of people. People in agriculture have their own unique issues, so I think growing up and watching my family face those issues gave me a lot of insight that helped me in dealing with people here, or anywhere where they’re involved in agriculture.
John Vincent, Vincent Davey Law Firm; Personal Injury – Plaintiff; Riverton, Wyoming: Grandpa Vincent was an orphan, and he was born in France in about 1870. The nuns put him on a boat and he ended up in Fremont County, Wyoming, before Riverton was even opened. The story is he drove the stagecoach with the government people that were going to open the town from Shoshoni to the Riverton town site. That’s how we got here, and they haven’t run us off yet.
Katrina Runyan, Runyan & Associates; Elder Abuse/Securities; Driggs, Idaho: I was born in Lander, Wyoming, and ended up in Alta, over the hill from Jackson Hole. I was like a princess here in my own way. My parents had a gorgeous ranch and I grew up riding horses every day. We used to ride snowmobiles or horses to school if the roads were bad.
The Starting Path
Ostrye: I left Montana in 1991, right after college, and moved to Amarillo, Texas, and got a good job with a big corporation there. But it was such a good corporation that nobody ever retired or left. At some point, I just kind of decided law school sounded interesting, mainly because I really wanted a job that had more autonomy. Working for a corporation was very much clock-in and clock-out, 8 to 5, and I thought it would be nice to have a job where I could set my own hours and kind of do my own thing. … I moved back to Montana in 2020 and then had children, so my focus definitely shifted to them from the big career. Then when COVID came, we decided that we really wanted to live closer to our families. My husband is from Idaho, so when his job went virtual, we had a house available here and we just moved right in.
Elkins: I was at the University of Idaho, between the second and third year of law school, and saw a job posting for the Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office as an intern. I applied, got the job, and came down here for the summer. The prosecutor cut me loose on doing court appearances and trying misdemeanor infractions. That’s how I got introduced to this area and really liked it.
Runyan: Starting in kindergarten, I used to pretend to read my [lawyer] dad’s work. I remember even what he wore that day, the first time he took me to court. I was 5. He let me go and listen to him argue. I just always held my dad in the highest regard and I wanted to be like him. I went to the University of Wyoming for law school, and then I ended up marrying one of my brother’s best friends, a music producer, and that’s how I ended up in California. I saw a Craigslist job ad for a secretary [at a Beverly Hills law firm]. I just wanted something to do because I was going crazy. The senior partners called me Cinderella because I went from a small town to Beverly Hills. I came back home in 2020 to be with my mom, who had stage 4 ovarian cancer.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Ostrye: I used to do strictly litigation for the first 24 years of practice. But now moving here, it’s mostly wills and estates and property transactions. There’s just not a big litigation docket at our local court. It’s a small town, so you take what’s available. And it’s worked out really well.
Runyan: The only type of law I like to do is to help others. During law school, I did legal services and domestic violence [law] at the clinic there and just realized how many people were in need. [At the California firm] I did securities law, and a huge part of securities law is financial abuse. I’ve kind of got a soft spot for helping elderly people.
Elkins: I always thought the criminal cases were a lot more interesting because you’re dealing with constitutional issues and the forensic side of things. So that kind of pushed me toward the criminal versus civil side.
Vincent: I started with Northern Natural Gas Company, and I did Federal Power Commission work for a couple of years, and then I was asked to become the executive director of the Montana Coal Council, the lobbying group for the Montana coal producers. But after a few months, I could see that really wasn’t what I had in mind. A really good lawyer here asked me to come back and go to work for him, and I did in 1976 or thereabouts. When you live in a town like Riverton, it’s inevitable that your friends and pals you grew up with get maimed and killed working in the oilfield. As I grew older, I could see that there were a lot of people that paid an awfully steep price for laboring in the oilfield.
Runyan: Since I’ve been back here, I think that people have gotten to know me because I do a lot now without asking anything back. My dad passed three months after my mom in 2022, but all of his old clients, everyone that knew my dad—that’s who reaches out to me. A lot of times I’m amending the work that my dad did relating to trusts and wills.
Ostrye: I was extremely lucky because there is an attorney in Fort Benton who’s been here for 51 years, and he’s thinking about retiring but isn’t quite ready to. So he offered to office-share with me. That has helped so much because everyone in the community knows him and trusts him. It would have been really hard to build something without having name recognition and endorsement by somebody very trustworthy and who’s been here a long time.
Vincent: I served as a city councilman. I served as mayor for eight years. While I was there, we got a big job corps built here in Riverton to train people working in the oilfield to do it the right way so that it was safe and careful. When [residents] see you involved in things like that, they know that you’re committed to the community and that you’re not just in a courtroom trying to get rich at the expense of a guy that lost his legs or his arms or got killed.
Elkins: After my clerkship, the prosecutor I interned for approached me about opening an office in Hailey. So we went into private practice and we were busy from Day One. And then in 1988 I decided that the timing was right for me to just go into my own practice. I became very committed to doing the best that I could do for my client. Once you start doing that, the word gets out. Over the years, I was able to build a reputation and I didn’t really have to go out and look for clients.
Vincent: In a case that involved the ability of the Wind River Tribal Court to handle cases that arose on the reservation, this white kid was working on a workover rig and one of the bolts that had kept coming loose fell out and hit him on the head, cold-cocked him, and he had to have a craniotomy to relieve the pressure on his brain. I think it was a $2.5 million verdict. The jury in tribal court was composed of five white people and one Indian person. The judge was Indian. That was a big deal, to recognize that a white person could bring a case against an oil company operating oil and gas fields within a reservation, in tribal court.
Runyan: Two wives—they were next-door neighbors and best friends—were married to men who were responsible for all the financial matters. Their husbands had been in a car accident and passed, and they thought that there was all this money that the husbands talked about. But they ended up getting swindled by a brokerage firm. These older women lost everything. It was the smallest case I’ve probably ever done, but I got the money back for them.
Elkins: My last case that I got appointed to as a public defender in 1990 was a first-degree murder charge here in Ketchum. It had all sorts of issues with a client that was schizophrenic and issues concerning the insanity defense, which had been abolished by the Idaho legislature a couple of years before I was appointed to the case. That case ended up going all the way up to the Idaho Supreme Court where it was reversed, and then the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. We ended up getting the case settled.
Ostrye: Recently, I was able to help a family who were about to have to sell their ranch because their father had to go into nursing home care, and Medicaid wasn’t going to cover it because they still have this large asset. I was able to figure out a way that we could transfer the asset to the wife and take advantage of a spousal exemption and some different things that they would’ve never figured out on their own. We got Dad the nursing home care he needed, and the family got to retain their farm and ranch.
Small Town, Big Benefits
Ostrye: I think the main benefit is that I really get to know people. They come in and we talk about their legal issue, but then we also talk about their kids or their farm or whatever. I really get to know people a lot better than when I was with a big firm and you only had time for a 10-minute conversation.
Runyan: Everybody’s friendly to me. I haven’t worn a suit since I left Beverly Hills. This isn’t for everybody, but going from the big corporate world to the small town helped me figure out who I was.
Vincent: There is no caste system here. The lawyers actually get to know each other. The guys at the fed cases, whether they’re in Denver or Billings or Salt Lake, are typically people that I’ve worked with in many, many other cases through the years. You know their kids. You know what their families are doing. And you know the judges personally. That doesn’t mean that judges give you any special treatment or anything like that, but for me it provides a sense of calm in knowing that everybody that’s involved in that process is trying to do their best.
Elkins: The [outdoor] activities are great for me because I love doing those things once I finish the day. Or I take off at lunch and go for a Nordic ski and then come back and work the rest of the day. And then in the summer I bike to work from my house on a bike path. I’ve got a locker downstairs with a shower. It’s a very active community with lots of different things to do.
Ostrye: I think a lot of people outside do sort of think of small-town lawyers as being not as skilled or not good enough to make it at a big firm. But of course that’s not the case.
Vincent: The thing I’ve noticed with lawyers in larger firms, especially younger lawyers, is that they seem to be under tremendous pressure to perform in a certain way and to take hard stands and bitter stands. I practice law with my daughter and my son. We just finished a trial two, three months ago with a fellow from Denver. I liked him, but the way he approached a case was pretty informal and kind of brittle. It was like it was just rote and he didn’t really mean it. He didn’t know the person that he allegedly represented, and I doubt if he even met her. And it showed.
Runyan: When I meet another lawyer from a bigger city that I haven’t met before, they seem a little more pretentious. You get stereotyped as not knowing as much as them, when in reality you can know a lot more.
The Best Part
Ostrye: I love the freedom to be able to go home when my [twin] daughters get home from school and to attend their school events. It’s a very tight-knit community, so if I miss somebody’s call because I was at a school event, everybody understands. It’s been a great place for me to parent my daughters the way I want to, but still be able to practice law.
Elkins: Sun Valley is an incredible place to practice law because of the quality of the legal community and the judges. And then all of the personal things that I like are available right out my door. It’s a small town but it has city-like amenities as far as restaurants, entertainment, the arts.
Runyan: I love everything, from the scenery to the people to the work.
Vincent: Having my kids and my grandkids and my dear wife and friends here—that’s what I like. Gretchen and I met on a blind date the first night of college in 1967. We fell in love that night. We got married four years later and we’re still pals, and we have nine grandchildren now, three kids. We’re very close. You’ve got to remember: The reason we’re here is because a 14-year-old orphan ended up lucky enough to plant his roots here. And here we are.
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