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Management Assistance Program

Ten Things to Know When Starting a Small-Town Practice

by Stephen D. Beam and Jon K. Parsley

There are 10 things that are very important to know when starting a small-town law practice. These observations are based on the authors’ own experiences; Stephen D. Beam began practicing law in Weatherford in 1982 and Jon K. Parsley has practiced in Guymon since 1994. By incorporating these suggestions into your personal habits and business plan, we believe those lawyers hanging their own shingles will not only have a successful practice but become active and engaged members of their local communities.

FIND A MENTOR

Both of us had the excellent fortune of working with master attorneys right out of law school; David K. Petty and Joe McMillin. The ability to teach others how to practice law was a special talent for each of them. They taught us how to get along with other lawyers, how to get clients and all about the business of practicing law. Because of them, we did not have to learn the hard way many of the lessons new lawyers often encounter. We have both seen attorneys try to start a practice without any guidance, and it is usually a disaster. If you do not have a mentor and can’t seem to find one, check with the OBA. Other attorneys in small towns are usually very gracious in answering questions. You should develop a close relationship with your local lawyers, because you will never know all there is to know about practicing law. One of the best things about practicing law in a small town is your colleagues; we would suggest you meet all of the other lawyers and give them your business card. Many older lawyers want to have more of an office practice, so they do not practice domestic or criminal law to any large extent. If they know there is a new lawyer in the area who is friendly and nice, they just might refer those cases to you. Read How to Start and Build a Law Practice by Jay Foonberg; it really is a must-read.

BECOME ACTIVE IN THE BAR ASSOCIATION

There are numerous ways to become active in the state bar, and it is also important to join and be active in your local county bar association. Volunteer for everything. Show the other lawyers you understand the practice of law is a profession, and that you are willing to be Law Day chairman, county bar president or anything else that comes along. Get involved with the OBA Young Lawyers Division. It will be one of the best career choices you ever make. Run for a Board of Governors seat or be active on a committee or task force. Sure, bar association work takes time, but the dividends are at least tenfold in the end. Bar work gets your name out to people who may refer you cases and immediately builds a group of literally hundreds of friends you can call for help.

FREQUENT THE COURTHOUSE

We are not advocating solicitation, however we have noticed that when people see a person in a suit at the courthouse, they will walk up to you and ask, “are you a lawyer?” Most people have some legal work that needs done. Seeing you around can get you the work.

BEFRIEND THE COURT CLERKS AND OTHER COURTHOUSE PERSONNEL

This is really the golden rule. We have discovered that court clerks know a lot about the on-the-ground aspects of practicing law, certainly more than we did right out of law school. Friendly court clerks can help you find mistakes in your pleadings and assist in many other ways. Be friendly to everyone — you might be surprised when you need that janitor to open the door to the courthouse after hours.

ALWAYS BE ON TIME AND PREPARED

Being early for all court appearances may seem like a “no brainer,” but a large number of attorneys do not appear on time. They will double-book themselves or just show up late. Many attorneys show up without even looking at the materials for the hearing. You can “fake it” on occasion, but lack of preparation is usually readily apparent. If you have a habit of being early for hearings, the judge will be more forgiving when you have that very rare occurrence where you failed to calendar something.

BE AVAILABLE

In order to be successful in a small-town practice, you must be available. You have to keep regular office hours. You have to be willing to talk to people at the grocery store, the dry cleaners and everywhere else for that matter. You must be visible in the community. You should join civic clubs and local boards such as the YMCA or Lions Club. This will get you clients.

BILLING IS IMPORTANT

It sounds bad to say this is the most important part of practicing law, but you’re in business to help people, and you can’t do that if you don’t bill properly. We all know attorneys who work all the time; they have hundreds of clients, and they are always at wit’s end because they are so busy. However, they don’t make nearly as much money as other attorneys in town. The business part of the practice is easy to ignore. You are spinning your wheels if you don’t stop yourself and make sure you are billing and collecting.

MAKE FRIENDS WITH LOCAL ATTORNEYS AND JUDGES

The collegiality of other local attorneys is the most important thing you can have in your professional life. If other attorneys like and respect you, the benefits abound. You always have a friend to call with questions. Even if they are adverse to you in a case, they can help if you make a mistake. If the local bar hates you, practicing law can be a miserable existence.

Don’t be afraid to have friends who are judges. The ethical rules have some constraints on relationships you can have with judges, but there is no reason why judges shouldn’t be great friends. You are not befriending them to inappropriately sway their decision. We work with these people daily, and being friends with them should be a natural outcropping of your proper conduct around them.

DON’T TAKE CASES YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT

When you are starting out, there is a tendency to take matters you know nothing about. At some point, it seems we must all do this. However, get involved with another attorney the first time or two until you know exactly what needs to be done. Do not try to handle specialty areas of the law. Refer these cases to someone who really knows that area.

YOUR WORD REALLY IS YOUR BOND

This is so true. Every person can name an attorney that he or she cannot trust, and that name becomes universally known among the members of the bar. You can get a horrible reputation, and the practice of law can be miserable if you are one of those names. If it is not true, do not say it.

CONCLUSION

You probably won’t get rich practicing law in a small town. So why do it? That’s an easy answer. You will love the wonderful quality of life and the personal satisfaction you will get from knowing your neighbors, along with knowing you have the ability to assist them when they need help. If you work hard, you will be able to make a good living and will be able to make a positive difference in your clients’ lives. We hope these words of advice will provide a compass as you begin your journey as a small-town practitioner.

About The Authors  

Stephen D. Beam is a sole practitioner in Weatherford. He was the 2007 president of the Oklahoma Bar Association. He earned his B.A. from Oklahoma State University and earned his J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

Jon K. Parsley is a sole practitioner in Guymon. He was the 2009 president of the Oklahoma Bar Association. He earned a B.A. from the University of Central Oklahoma and earned his J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, October 6, 2012 - Volume 83, No. 26