From the Front Porch: Practicing Law in Rural Areas

/

What do I know?

When I was deciding what to write for this column, I wanted to discuss the differences between practicing law in rural areas and urban areas. Also, I wanted to give some pointers for those of us who choose to practice out in the sticks. However, in order to discuss the differences, one should know something about both situations, right? The first thing that dawned on me was, what do I know about practicing in an urban area? I have been practicing in a rural setting for nearly 28 years. So, in writing this column I have done my best to draw on information that I have received from my friends who practice in larger cities as well as personal experiences in dealing with big city lawyers.

You’re not going to get a lot of hard‑hitting legal analysis from me. Not here anyway. The law and procedure in Texas are the same, whether you practice in the country or in the city. The difference between the two is not with the law, but rather how we practice the profession.

Can’t we just all get along?

One of the first differences between practicing in the country and the city that comes to mind is the fact that, out here, lawyers seem to get along with one another better than they do in the city. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because there are not as many lawyers, and we all know each other much better than our counterparts in the city do. Maybe it’s because we see each other a lot. Not only do we see each other at the courthouse, but we also see each other at the grocery store, at church, at a Friday night football game, and at our children’s and grandchildren’s soccer games and other events on the weekends.

This is not to say that “we are all in bed together.” That’s a myth that some people believe about hiring a lawyer from a small town for a case pending in said small town. I don’t hear it as much as I used to, but there are still some that believe it. It’s nothing for some of us to engage in a long, bloody, acrimonious fight at the courthouse for hours or even days then go have a beer together when it’s all over. Believe it or not, it is possible to represent your client vigorously, and to the fullest extent of your ability, and still be courteous and civil with opposing counsel and the Court. Heck, some of us are actually very good friends. Many years ago, I went on an Elk hunting trip to Colorado with a group of guys that included criminal defense attorneys, the elected District Attorney, a criminal investigator with a local police department, and a probation officer, among others. Not a single case was decided or even discussed on that trip.

A lot of irons in the fire

Another difference between the country lawyers and city lawyers is that out here, we don’t generally get to specialize. That’s just the nature of making a living. In the larger cities a lot of attorneys are able to focus on specific practice areas like criminal defense, family law, civil litigation, real estate, and the list goes on and on. There are some lawyers that even sub‑specialize. For instance, there are some lawyers that handle only DWI cases, or drug cases, etc.

In rural areas, we tend to handle more than one kind of case, and in some instances several. I have always done criminal defense. It’s my passion. I majored in criminal justice in college. Most of my friends in college wanted to go into law enforcement of some sort. Not me. I wanted to practice criminal law. However, it’s very difficult if not impossible to make a good living doing just criminal defense in a small town. I have always practiced family law as well. In my career I have also done civil litigation (DTPA, Contract Disputes, Personal Injury / Medical Malpractice) and probate. For many years I was a title examiner and closer for a local title company. Rural practice just seems to be more diverse.

I have found that my experiences in other areas of the law have served me well in my criminal law practice. For example, I have received many referrals from other attorneys to represent people, who had criminal charges pending, in their divorce case. The referral may come from a divorce attorney that does not feel

comfortable handling both cases, so they refer both to me or sometimes just the criminal matter. Either way it’s good for business. For years, we had an attorney here that practiced only family law. She was board certified and very well respected. There were several times when she would hire me, and pay me well, to advise she and her client on complex real estate issues in large estate divorces. This was simply based on my knowledge and experience with not only family law, but also real estate law and financing.

Stay Educated

Staying educated is important no matter where you practice. In order to be competent, one must stay current on all developments in the area or areas of law in which they practice. There are many ways to accomplish this. You can attend CLE conferences in person or online. You can do self‑study. Personally, I find that I get much more out of continuing legal education if I attend in person. When I’m at the conference I’m a captive audience. I don’t have the phone constantly ringing, fires to put out, and office staff needing answers every few minutes. I’m there to listen, learn, and network. Networking… we’ll get to that in a minute.

The downside to rural practice as it relates to continuing legal education is that if you practice regularly in different areas of the law, you need to attend CLE in those areas to stay current. This can be time consuming and expensive. However, I find that it is worth the time and expense because it helps me to better serve my clients.

Networking – making and maintaining relationships

Again, networking and relationships are areas that are important no matter where you practice. However, I believe that they have tan extra level of importance for rural lawyers. Networking and maintaining relationships help to build business. The more people we know and associate with, the more channels for referrals of business. Also, the more attorneys that we know from other areas of the state that practice in our field, the more sources we have to discuss issues and bounce ideas off of one another. In rural areas it is vitally important to build and maintain relationships with those in the community, not just the lawyers. These are the people that will be on our juries. As criminal defense attorneys, we all know that more criminal cases go to jury trial than any other type of case.

Also, in rural areas, where we practice more than one area of the law, we have to be mindful to always be professional and courteous to others that are opposing parties in a case. If we are not, someone might wind up on one of our juries and hold that against us. I have tried many jury cases where there were several people on the jury panel that were either former clients (divorces, real estate transactions) or the opposing party in a case in which I was involved (mostly divorces). If the ex‑wife or ex‑husband of one of my former divorce clients winds up on that jury, it would be very detrimental for my client if they decided to hold a grudge against me.

For example, in one criminal jury trial, there was a lady on the panel that was the opposing party in a divorce case that I had previously handled. I flagged her immediately as someone that I did not want on my jury. During the State’s voir dire, she indicated that she knew me because I represented her ex‑husband. We approached the bench to do further examination outside of the presence of the whole panel. During that discussion she told the Judge that she did not hold anything against me because although I represented her husband, I was always professional and courteous with her. My client and I decided to not strike her. It went well. The case ended in a hung jury and she was one of the not guilty votes.

It also helps to maintain a good working relationship with law enforcement, when you can. There have been several times during my career when I called up someone with local law enforcement to ask questions and get help. If you don’t have a good working relationship with law enforcement they generally won’t talk to you. Again, for example, there have been several times when I was representing someone in a child custody case, and my client thought that the other party was up to no good but didn’t have any solid information. A couple of phone calls later I knew what they were doing, and whom they were associating with. These officers that provided information showed up at my hearing and willingly testified.

Recently, I represented a defendant in a large EOCA (Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity) case. The initial discovery was very large. It took me quite some time to go through it. Once I did, I was unable to find where my client was involved with the criminal organization. I called the lead investigator on the case, whom I have known for many years. I asked him to explain to me where my client was involved with the EOCA case. He basically told me that he believed my client was a drug user, but not involved with the EOCA. I asked him if he would relay that information to the D.A. He did. I spoke with the district attorney, and after a short time, my client’s case was dismissed. If I had not had a good working relationship with the detective, it would have taken months or years to have that case dismissed.

Stay on the appointment wheel

In rural areas, it is very important to stay on the appointment wheel, even when your practice is doing well, and you don’t think it’s necessary. If you continue to receive appointments, these can be great sources for referrals. I have even had previous court appointed clients hire me on new cases because they liked the way I treated them when I was appointed. Staying on the wheel keeps your name out there and almost always produces more retained clients.

Unknown waters

If you are an attorney from a larger urban area and you are representing a client on a case in a small town, please consider the following advice.

Ask questions. Call a local attorney in that area and get the lay of the land. Many of us in TCDLA are more than happy to answer a few questions for our brothers and sisters. You will need to know all of the quirks about the Judge, the prosecutor, and how things are done. You need to know the local procedures of the Court.

Consider associating local counsel. A dog barks louder on his own front porch. In a rural community, these prosecutors who are used to working with the same defense lawyers day in and day out may not trust a lawyer coming in from a metropolitan area like they do the attorneys they know. If you are going to consider hiring local counsel, ask around, and be sure you associate someone who has a good working relationship with the Court and the prosecutor. Also, associate someone who the locals know is not afraid to try a case, and will if they have to. Finding someone who has a good working relationship with law enforcement helps also.

These are just some of my thoughts about practicing in a rural area. There are other areas to discuss, but I’ll save those for another time. Until then, remember:

“If you want to be successful, it’s just this simple. Know what you are doing, love what you are doing, and believe in what you are doing.”

‑Will Rogers

TCDLA
TCDLA
Todd Steele
Todd Steele
Todd Steele is an attorney in private practice in Brownwood, Texas. He graduated from Tarleton State University in 1989, and from Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in 1994. His practice is primarily in the areas of Criminal Defense and Family Law. The things that he is most proud of is his marriage to his wife Vicki of 26 years, his four children, and 7 grandchildren. His personal email address is and his phone number is (325) 643-6587.

Todd Steele is an attorney in private practice in Brownwood, Texas. He graduated from Tarleton State University in 1989, and from Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in 1994. His practice is primarily in the areas of Criminal Defense and Family Law. The things that he is most proud of is his marriage to his wife Vicki of 26 years, his four children, and 7 grandchildren. His personal email address is and his phone number is (325) 643-6587.

Previous Story

Shout Outs

Next Story

Federal Corner: The State of Borden in the Fifth Circuit

Latest from Columns