Big Cities Have a Glut of Lawyers While Small Towns Suffer

Categories: Schutze

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Everybody knows the Shakespeare quote, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." It's the stuff of T-shirts. But how many people know what it was about?

In Henry VI, Dick the Butcher proposes killing all of England's lawyers as the first step toward accomplishing the treasonous plot of Jack Cade to overthrow the rule of law and set himself up as a communist demagogue.

Hmm. Maybe the back of the T-shirts should say, "... or not."

Fascinating story in today's New York Times about something I sure didn't know we had in this country -- a lawyer shortage. Last time I heard, the law schools were still dumping lawyers off the assembly line faster than DeVry cranks out left-handed jet mechanics, producing a national glut of loan-burdened law school graduates working as baristas, rafting guides and, jeez, I don't know, I've even heard of law school graduates reduced to journalism.

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But that's not exactly what today's story in the Times is about. They're talking about states where all the lawyers are piled up in big cities while people in rural areas can't scare one up with a stick. The story cites Texas as a major example, with 83 percent of lawyers concentrated in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio while some rural areas lack any lawyer at all within a 100 miles.

Is that a bad thing? If you only go by the front side of the T-shirt, you might assume people in rural areas should lead better less stressful lives for their lack of lawyers. And then we have this whole tort reform culture in Texas by which large corporations have convinced us that we little people are burdened by a surplus of constitutional rights and need to give some of ours away to them.

The New York Times story points out that sooner or later even the most mellow and sweet-tempered farmer will need to get a will probated or protect himself from the debts of his ne'er-do-well twice-removed cousin with the same name. Sometimes you just need a lawyer.

South Dakota has passed a law paying lawyers an annual subsidy to live in lawyer-deprived areas, based on the national subsidy for doctors who agree to locate in under-served areas. Here in Texas we have a student loan repayment program for doctors who go to the boondocks. What about using tax money to steer lawyers to the boonies, as well?
My own leanings have less to do with probate than the crucial role lawyers play in small communities just by being there. I'm thinking of the informal gathering of the powers-that-be that takes place at least once a week somewhere in every small town, whether they're sipping coffee around the back table at the Dairy Queen or standing in the parking lot at Brookshire's.

In small communities -- probably in big cities, as well -- lawyers are the only people in the ebb and flow of everyday American life trained to think philosophically, by which I mean systematically, rigorously and in the abstract. Everybody else thinks black-hats and white-hats, bad guys and good. The good guys are us. The bad guys are those other guys.
It's an old reporter trick for figuring out a small town quickly: go to the lawyers first. They're the only ones who have a mental map of the community in which power and contending interests can be laid out in the abstract.

They can lay it out for you: These people over here make their money this way, and they come from this background. Therefore they view the strike at the bow and arrow factory thusly. Those people over there make their money this other way and come from this other background, so they see it this other way.

In the informal meetings where the powers-that-be decide what's going to go down in town that week, it's only the lawyer who can frame a conflict in the abstract and within the rule of law. He or she knows how to lay out everybody's position on the power grid, affording a certain amount of legitimacy and a few feet of clay to all sides. I would even argue that lawyers are the essential glue holding us all together in this unwieldy framework of democracy and the rule of law that we call America.

That's why there are so many of them in legislative bodies. They're good at it. It's not that they know a whole bunch of laws from law school. They know how to view human conflict in the abstract and bring about productive compromise within the law while everybody else is still calling each other Nazis and whores.

Are there lawyers who goad people into combat when they shouldn't? Sure, just as there are lawyers who won't fight when they should. We have Catholic priests who are too morally rigid, and then ... you see my point. The proper question is the role most of them play.

The idea of rural communities without lawyers -- or big communities, for that matter -- is a frightening one. In the real world, small town life is no more free from conflict than life in the big city. Humans collide, no matter where you put them.

Take all the lawyers out of the picture, and sooner or later the owner of the Western Auto franchise and the owner of the John Deere dealership will settle their differences dead drunk with baseball bats. Life is better with lawyers, because life isn't always all that great -- anywhere, everywhere, ever.


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31 comments
ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

Here is an illustration of people's ambivalence about lawyers. People say they hate lawyers and congressmen, but THEIRS is a saint. Lawyers are necessary to our system of 'laws instead of people'.

Good one Jim.

BobLowlaw
BobLowlaw

The problem is that the law has become so specialized.  Small town lawyers will do a little divorce, DWI, real estate, general business, you-name-it.  And it's nearly impossible to be competent in a wide-range of legal skills now.  It's a real problem.

BillHolston
BillHolston

thanks Jim. That's a really great description of what good lawyers do. It's the reason why so many non profit boards are populated with lawyers. Good lawyers know how to simplify things, to break them down to the essentials and find a cost effective solution. If your lawyer isn't doing that, you have the wrong one.

MikeWestEast
MikeWestEast

Most law school grads are too busy hungering for urban vibrancy that they miss on how rural lawyers get rich. Yes, you cannot get rich on the actual court cases and you are not going to get a year's worth of billings filing motions for corporate lawsuits. You will get rich because lawyers in rural settings are CONNECTED. A lot of business gets done in the sticks and lawyers are always at the front table. I never knew a successful rural lawyer that did not also have a real estate brokerage, an insurance business, and maybe some sort of temp business, even health care business. They use their skills in multiple ways and are always interested in new opportunities. Too many college graduates, legal and non-legal, are looking to get a seat on tram car that takes them to the top of the mountain. It is those opportunities that are in free fall in regards to numbers. Now, as rural lawyer, you cannot go back to the reunion and quote a name plate firm. Instead, you make a ton of money, it is all yours, and you actually enjoy being a lawyer.

if6were9
if6were9

In the city the "strong arms of the law" get to nail down railroad spikes.........in the rural areas, it's more like tacks. 


JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

I admit that lawyers will always be a tough sell in rural Texas, the land that brought us Gov. Oops, where ignorance and a slow wit are viewed as signs of Godliness. 

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

Going to trial with a lawyer who considers your whole life-style a Crime in Progress is not a happy prospect. - Hunter S. Thompson (b. 1939), U.S. journalist. “A Letter to The Champion: a publication of the National Assoc. of Criminal Defense Lawyers” (July 1990; repr. in Songs of the Doomed, 1991).

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

So lawyers are like most other educated people that just don't want to live around backwoods nimrods? Congrats, Jim. You've humanized them!

roo_ster
roo_ster

"...lawyers are the only people in the ebb and flow of everyday American life trained to think philosophically, by which I mean systematically, rigorously and in the abstract."

Wow, that statement is positively provincial in its ignorance and naivete of the broad sweep of occupations and what is required to successfully engage in them. Really, Jim, you ought to get out and meet more people.


scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

"A country boy between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats"  Ben Franklin

James080
James080

Never mind, Paul covered the same ground.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Jim, Jim, Jim, I guess your poor, tired, bleeding heart couldn't find any other group to find pity and sympathy for today.


A couple of things, one you will never see a single lawyer in a small town as he will starve to death.  It takes two to survive.  Second, lawyers, never have been, never are and never will be interested in the "TRUTH".  They are solely interested in and fiercely protective of their client's best interests.


I once heard a lawyer say that if the facts are against you, argue the law; if the law is against you, argue the facts; and, if the law and the facts are against you, confuse the starch out of the jury.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@MikeWestEast 

I am told the same thing can be true for a hard-working entrepreneurial doctor in the sticks. In rural areas they are able to do a lot of stuff that's owned by the specialists in the cities. Patients are willing to come from far and wide because they have to. It takes a certain  personality: the doctor may have to be willing to join the Lion's Club and otherwise demonstrate that he or she is a right guy/gal, but they can clean up if they play their cards right. As far as living with ruralonians goes, there are lots of people who are into horses, fishing, hunting, whatever, who are actually closer to what they love in the boondocks.  

Guesty
Guesty

@MikeWestEast I think you are overstating the wealth created by being a rural attorney.  I'm not saying they can't make a good living, but they generally won't get rich by anyone's standards.  

I'd also add that most successful lawyers in rural Texas are from the communities in which they work.  I don't think it's a model that can be followed by a young lawyer moving to a small town and hanging out a shingle.  I'm not even sure that the lawyers in small towns are connected because they are lawyers.  It may be that only connected people can survive as lawyers in small towns (i.e. the causation runs the opposite direction).     

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

@cantkeepthetruthdown No, this is clearly one of the best articles Jim has ever written.  If Jim just wanted to rack up some comments he would write about DISD, man that gets things going.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@JimSX So the real point we should glean from your article and your comments in the thread is that, in your particular view, everyone from small towns is a provincial, mouthbreathing, nearly retarded oaf, and their saving grace will be lawyers with an urban upbringing setting up shop and bringing a degree of sophistication to their drab, dreary, agrarian existence?

I would beg to differ.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@scottindallas

The good lawyer is not the man who has an eye to every side and angle of contingency, and qualifies all his qualifications, but who throws himself on your part so heartily, that he can get you out of a scrape.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul

Always admired the truth of that anecdote. Also have heard it as "pound the law, pound the facts, pound the table."

On a serious note, many legal issues facing normal real people (as opposed to fictional legal entities licensed by states) may be important, but often are of little value, or even if valuable, a winning verdict may not provide an immediate source of funds to the client with which to compensate the lawyer.

I believe the Times discussed this issue recently. Everyone wants to be a well compensated attorney, not a poor one.

titusgroan
titusgroan

I think a better version of that saying is, "If you're weak on the facts, pound on the law.  If you're weak on the law, pound on the facts.  If you're weak on both, pound on the table."

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul City attorneys are an exception to what you describe.  They are assigned to cover procedure and to ensure the law is followed and to avoid litigation for bad policy.  Too often, the adversarial standard is the rule.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@JimSX@Scruffygeist 

Be careful what you quote or reference Jim:

" In 15th-century English, "Nimrod" had come to mean "tyrant". Coined in 20th-century American English, the term is now commonly used to mean "dimwitted or stupid fellow", a usage first recorded in 1932 and popularized by the cartoon character Bugs Bunny, who sarcastically refers to the hunter Elmer Fudd as "nimrod",[21][22] possibly as an ironic connection between "mighty hunter" and "poor little Nimrod", i.e. Fudd.[23]"

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

@JimSX Wow, you put me in my place with semantics. Usually the sign of someone who can't find a better counter.

Seriously, you can do much better.

roo_ster
roo_ster

@JimSX@roo_sterMost small businessmen who must keep abreast of the small community and keep their customers & clients happy.  Plus, sharp enough to stay in business.  They must have quantitative, social, and subject matter expertise to be successful.  Small town lawyers qualify, here, but so do many others.

Anyone in the science, tech, engineering, & math fields.  Abstraction & rigor are their meat & potatoes.  Rigor of a sort that is difficult to argue away.

Or just about any old lady hooked into the gossip commo line.  My grandmother could tell you just about anything about anyone in the county she called home, back several generations.  Business, social, legal, farming...she was pretty amazing.  A lively intellect, the gift of gab, and a hunger for dish made her the one-stop-shop for intel in that county.  I have no delusions she was unique.

I must admit I found your article jarring, as my one deep foray into the legal system was a journey through fantasy, bull-shinola, and written and spoken legerdemain.  Reality had nothing to do with what seemed to me a battle of fictions, with lawyers who knew the stories they were peddling were baloney, but who peddled the obvious fiction with vigor.  Fact was a spinster around whom lies were courted, diddled, and cast off when no longer serviceable.  Pretty much the opposite of your description.  And if they did have some sort of small-town insight, it would most certainly not be spilled out at the cafe, but used to their own advantage.

BillHolston
BillHolston

@primi_timpano you will find our city is filled with lawyers who donate millions of dollars in free legal services for people who need help. Admittedly it is a small percentage of lawyers, but those who do are extremely generous with your time.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@JimSX @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  

No. And when I retain one, I make sure that I retain the biggest, baddest, meanest sumbitch of them all.

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