1 I. INTRODUCTION. CITY LAWYER/COUNTRY LAWYER William J. Donald III Donald, Randall & Donald P.O. Box 2155 Tuscaloosa, AL Woodford W. Dinning, Jr. Lloyd & Dinning, LLC P.O. Drawer 740 Demopolis, AL (Demopolis Office) (Linden Office) This seminar paper examines the differences between City Lawyer practice versus Country Lawyer practice in West Alabama. City Lawyer is loosely defined here to mean practicing law in Tuscaloosa County, where most of the lawyers have their offices located in the city limits of Tuscaloosa. Country Lawyer is loosely defined to mean any lawyer practicing in the surrounding West Alabama counties of Greene, Sumter, Marengo, Pickens, Fayette, Lamar, Hale, Perry, Bibb, and Choctaw. The authors have observed, over the years, the two types of practices are significantly different. Identifying and analyzing the differences will hopefully offer insight to City Lawyers when they are engaged in handling cases in Country Lawyer counties and vice versa, or when an attorney is wrestling with whether to become a City Lawyer or a Country Lawyer. II. SPECIALIZING VERSUS GENERALIZING. Perhaps the biggest difference in City Lawyer versus Country Lawyer practice lies in the tendency of City Lawyer practice to become more specialized, whereas, Country Lawyer practice has remained more generalized. That is, in general, the City Lawyer has become more of a specialist, he sticks to what he does best and refers other kind of cases to attorneys who specialize in them. For example, in Tuscaloosa County, the jack of all trades lawyer has become rare. You are much more likely to find lawyers specializing in one or a few areas of law, e.g., personal injury, social security, workers comp, insurance defense, bankruptcy, debtor/creditor, collection, litigation, domestic relations, juvenile, criminal, real estate, probate, title insurance, business and commercial, among other specialties. Among Country Lawyers, the lawyer who is a true generalist or jack of all trades is more common. Many Country Lawyers, even the established ones, who have paid their dues
2 - 2 - and earned the right to limit their practice, still handle a little bit of everything, i.e., they still try cases, handle divorces, prepare deeds and wills, write title opinions, close loans, file sale for divisions, and handle anything else that may come along in their respective counties. This difference between City Lawyers and Country Lawyers has not always been so prominent. In the 1960's, 70's and 80's, the average City Lawyer from Tuscaloosa County handled a larger variety of cases than he now does. The size of the Bar was much smaller then. As the Tuscaloosa County Bar has grown (seemingly exponentially), the average City Lawyer has become more of a specialist. The average Country Lawyer has remained more of a generalist. The reason is obvious. The number of Country Lawyers has not grown nearly so much as the number of City Lawyers. Nor have the populations in their counties grown much (in fact some have decreased). In most small West Alabama counties, the number of practicing attorneys has remained about the same over the decades. Becoming a specialist is less practical for at least two reasons: (1) the client base is too small to support a specialized practice; and (2) too many specialists in a small county would not be in the best interest of the people of that county and too often would require them to go elsewhere for adequate representation. In Tuscaloosa County, the dynamics are entirely different, especially now as compared to the past. These days, the average City Lawyer, as his practice matures, can provide better representation, make more money, and avoid malpractice complaints, by finding his niche and sticking to what he does best, rather than handling everything coming through the door. Tuscaloosa County is large enough that specialization is probably the most successful model. With a few exceptions (e.g., personal injury lawyers), the average Country Lawyer will tend to have a more generalized practice than his City Lawyer counterpart. III. CRIMINAL APPOINTMENTS. Criminal appointments are handled differently in Tuscaloosa County compared to the surrounding counties in West Alabama. Tuscaloosa County has a public defender s office. The surrounding counties do not have this luxury. Tuscaloosa County has also had in recent years a growing and established criminal defense bar, i.e., attorneys who specialize in criminal law and willing to take appointments. Criminal defense specialists are essentially nonexistent in the surrounding West Alabama counties. The average Country Lawyer in these counties cannot make a living handling criminal cases only. On the other hand, the judge or judges in the Country Lawyer s circuit expect him to handle his share of criminal appointments unless he is affiliated with the prosecution. The smaller the county, the greater the expectation. For example, in Pickens County, the average Country Lawyer, young and old, handles his fair share of criminal appointments. In a larger county, like Marengo, older lawyers can opt out of the criminal appointment process after having paid their dues, so to speak.
3 - 3 - Several years ago, the judges in Tuscaloosa County saw a need for experienced litigators, criminal and civil, to take appointments in capital cases when the public defender s office was not available to take the case. The notion was the same handful of private attorneys were being called upon too often and had an unfair case load. A program was implemented but it did not go very far. Fortunately, the size of Tuscaloosa County s criminal bar has grown to the point that civil litigators (much to their great relief) have not been called upon to take an occasional criminal appointment. IV. DOCKET CALLS. In the context of civil litigation, jury cases in particular, docket calls in Tuscaloosa County certainly are important, but take on greater significance in the surrounding counties in West Alabama. In Tuscaloosa County, there are more judges and more dockets. In the adjoining West Alabama counties, depending on the circuit, there may be only one judge and jury dockets held just twice a year. Country Lawyers practicing in those counties intuitively know the importance of these dockets and treat them with the importance and respect they deserve. Experienced City Lawyers who regularly practice in these counties and know what they are doing, do the same. On occasion, however, there is the inexperienced or unprepared City Lawyer who goes to a docket call in a Country Lawyer county and finds himself in a real bind. Here is a typical scenario. A big jury case has been pending in a Country Lawyer county for a year. Two docket calls have come and gone and the case was passed from the trial docket. Some discovery has been done. The Country Lawyer plaintiff attorneys have just disclosed their expert witness. The City Lawyer defense attorney has just filed his motion for summary judgment. As the Court s official calendar plainly shows, the trial docket is scheduled to follow two months after the pretrial docket call. The City Lawyer shows up alone at the docket call. He has not associated local counsel. He enters a courtroom divided by wooden panels. Outside the panels are the wooden pews where spectators sit during jury trials. This is where most of the City Lawyers sit during the docket call. Inside the wooden panels are where the judge s bench is located and the cases are tried. During the docket call, this is where most of the Country Lawyers sit, as do a handful of City Lawyers who want to be where the action is. The City Lawyer in question reads a published docket of civil jury cases. There are 70 cases and his case is number 50. There is no way his case will be set on the trial docket scheduled only two months out, he thinks. He is badly mistaken. As the judge calls his case and he walks from the pews, past the wooden panels and toward the judge s bench, the Country Lawyers representing the plaintiffs have already sprung into action. Unlike the City Lawyer, the Country Lawyers have been anticipating this
4 - 4 - docket call for months. They may have already discussed with the judge how many cases he expects to actually try on the upcoming trial docket and the likelihood of reaching their case. At the bench, they remind the judge the case has already been passed twice before, they have disclosed their expert and will gladly make him available for deposition, and they consider the defense s recently filed motion to judgment frivolous. The City Lawyer protests the case is not ready for trial, that more discovery is needed, and that he is serious about his motion for summary judgment and wants a hearing on it. The judge politely informs him the case will be set on the upcoming trial docket and he will do what he can to schedule a hearing on the motion before the trial date. He also asks the City Lawyer if he has considered settlement and should mediation be ordered. The Country Lawyers are naturally pleased with the judge s pronouncements. On the way back to his office, it has now dawned on the City Lawyer that (1) his case is set for trial just two months out, (2) he may get a hearing on his summary judgment motion, but, at best, it will be on the eve of trial, (3) the judge has essentially told him he needs to settle, and (4) he did not see this coming and has a lot of explaining to do to his client. In the above example, the City Lawyer made two mistakes. He underestimated the significance and importance of the docket call in the Country Lawyers county and he neglected to get local counsel assistance (remember, we said this was a big case). V. ASSOCIATING LOCAL COUNSEL. Conventional wisdom appears to be that local counsel assistance is usually unnecessary in Tuscaloosa County. That is, out of county attorneys (whether City Lawyers or Country Lawyers) routinely assume they can handle a case in Tuscaloosa County without local counsel assistance. The correctness of that assumption is open to debate, but clearly it is routinely made. On the other hand, the City Lawyer who thinks he can go solo in a Country Lawyer county could be making a serious mistake. This is especially so when the case has much at stake and the opposing side is represented by a competent, well known, local attorney. In those cases, the City Lawyer litigator should do a reality check. Most likely, his Country Lawyer opponent knows the judge very well. The Country Lawyer will personally know many of the jurors and likely have represented several of them or their families, and the jurors most certainly will know all about him. In this scenario, the City Lawyer who goes it alone and does not get competent, local counsel assistance may not be committing malpractice, but he likely is doing his client a disservice. When big verdicts in West Alabama are analyzed, a frequent common denominator is that the prevailing party was represented by competent local counsel and the losing party was represented by an out of county City Lawyer who had no local counsel assistance.
5 - 5 - VI. MAKING THE MOVE (HANGING OUT A SHINGLE). Here, we look at when attorneys contemplate changing their practice by making the move, i.e., hanging up a shingle in another county. First, the Country Lawyer who wants to become a City Lawyer. What are the considerations, for example, in moving from a small West Alabama county to a county the size of Tuscaloosa? Where this has been done successfully, the Country Lawyer making the move will usually be seen to have done the following: 1. Laying the ground work by, e.g., first working in the district attorney s office, taking a job with a law firm, or finding a mentor; 2. Sharing office space and staff with one or more attorneys having compatible personalities and practices; 3. Taking appointments in criminal cases and as guardian ad litem in civil, domestic, juvenile, and probate cases; and/or 4. Finding a niche, i.e., an opportunity or a specialty from which a successful law practice could be built. The formula for City Lawyers successfully becoming Country Lawyers is usually simpler but no less challenging. It tends to involve two different scenarios. One is where the City Lawyer first establishes himself in the big city (Tuscaloosa) and then (when the time seems right), he returns to his home county where he has contacts (family and friends) upon which he can establish his new practice. The other is where the City Lawyer looks around and discovers a unique opportunity in a nearby, smaller county from which he can start a new practice even though he may have no family or established contacts in that county. Without one of these scenarios, a City Lawyer will find it difficult to establish a successful practice in a Country Lawyer s county. However, it is not impossible. Which leads to the next topic. VII. COMMUNITY SERVICE/CHURCH. First, every attorney, whether a City Lawyer or a Country Lawyer, should do his fair share of community service. He should join a church. He should do these things because they are the right things to do. They are not things lawyers should do just to enhance their legal practices. However, community service and church involvement can only help a lawyer build his practice. Can a City Lawyer have a successful practice without doing these things?
6 - 6 - Absolutely, and especially so depending on his practice. For example, a City Lawyer with a specialty practice and who gets his cases mostly from, e.g., advertising, attorney referrals, insurance companies, or other businesses, can make a fine living without doing any community service or attending church. A successful Country Lawyer, on the other hand, who is simply all business, keeps to himself, does no community service, and has no church affiliation, is a rare breed. And if he has no family or established contacts in his county, his chances of having a successful practice are poor. In West Alabama s small counties, professionals like lawyers and doctors are seen as pillars of the community in ways difficult to replicate in a county the size of Tuscaloosa. The big fish in a small pond effect is for real. VIII. ADVERTISING. Advertising has had a big impact on City Lawyer practice. For any doubters, compare the Tuscaloosa telephone book from 20 years ago to now. Years ago, City Lawyers got their cases based on their contacts in the community, reputation, word of mouth and referrals. Now, through effective advertising, a City Lawyer with little or no experience or reputation can jump start a practice in any number of specialties. In general, Country Lawyers have less need for advertising. In Country Lawyer counties, everybody pretty much knows everybody else, and they especially know the lawyers. There is little need for a Country Lawyer to advertise in the county or counties where he practices primarily. Reputation in the community is more important to getting business than advertising. On the other hand, a Country Lawyer who wishes to specialize, for example, in personal injury cases, should consider advertising. This is because he will need to expand his territory. Country Lawyers will struggle making a living in personal injury or any other specialty in one or even a handful of counties. If he wants to specialize and is willing to expand his territory, advertising is something he should consider. IX. CONFLICTS. City Lawyers view conflicts differently than their Country Lawyer counterparts. A City Lawyer, for example, is reluctant to take any case where the opposing party is a former client under any circumstances. They are even reluctant to take a case where they simply know the opposing party or his family, or attend the same church. By necessity, Country Lawyers view conflicts differently. Earning a living would be difficult if they declined cases for the same reasons City Lawyers sometimes do. Country Lawyers are more apt to have previously represented or know the opposing party or some
7 - 7 - member of his family, attend the same church or have some other connection. If such connection created a true conflict of interest, Country Lawyers would be turning down cases left and right. When it comes to conflicts, Country Lawyers tend to follow this rule of thumb: There is no conflict of interest unless the opposing party is a former client and the information gained in representing the former client could be used to his disadvantage in the new legal matter. This is consistent with the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct (See Rule 1.9). Thus, for example, a Country Lawyer could represent a party in his first divorce, then, many years later, when the same party hired another lawyer to represent him in his second divorce, the Country Lawyer could conceivably represent the opposing party without there being a conflict of interest. Few City Lawyers would consider doing this but a Country Lawyer easily could. X. BAR ASSOCIATIONS. City Lawyers have seen big changes in the Tuscaloosa County Bar Association over the years. During the 1950's, 60's, 70's and 80's, the members of the Bar pretty much knew everyone. Being Bar president was probably more an honor than a commitment. The Bar s accomplishments were less than impressive during those years. The major events usually centered around an annual Law Day function and a Christmas social. Things started changing in the 1990's and 2000's. First came the large increase in the Bar s membership. This has led to a more fragmented bar, i.e., where bar members do not know each other as well and sections within the Bar developed. That is, Tuscaloosa County has come to have bars within the Bar, e.g., a prosecution bar, a criminal defense bar, a domestic relations and juvenile practice bar, a bankruptcy bar, a social security bar, a personal injury bar, and a civil litigation and insurance defense bar, among others. The Bar has become more organized and proactive and frankly has done much more in recent years to serve the community and promote itself. This has been largely due to a succession of strong bar presidents who have followed the good examples set by his or her predecessor. The Country Lawyers experience with their local bar associations in general has remained much the same over the years. Each small West Alabama county has its own close knit local bar and a loose knit circuit bar. The smaller the county, the closer knit the local bar is generally. Country Lawyer bars tend to have some things in common a City Lawyer bar, due to its larger size, does not have: the Country Lawyer bar members know each other well, consider each other good friends for the most part, and there is less animosity between themselves even when they are on opposite sides. Any City Lawyer attending a docket call in a Country Lawyer county (e.g., Pickens) will recognize this immediately if he pays attention.