by Mary B. Mahler
District Judge, St. Cloud
I’m often asked what I like about my relatively new role as a district court judge or what surprises I’ve had during the past two years.
The most pleasant surprise has been a new-found and significant respect for the small-town lawyers who appear before me. The small-town lawyers are pretty rare. These days, law-school graduates seek work in larger cities for salaries that support thousands of dollars in student loans. The small-town lawyers typically have a wealth of knowledge coupled with many years of experience. Yet they struggle to keep their financial heads above water. There’s a perception if a case is complicated or an estate too large, the client must seek representation from one of those big-city lawyers who “specializes.”
Despite impressions that most rural disputes are no longer worth their cost to litigate, the small-town lawyer is still worth getting to know. Prior to initiating cases, the small-town lawyers attempt to assist clients in resolving problems by what may be considered “first principles.” They cannot specialize; he/she must know a little something about virtually every area of the law. The small-town lawyer rarely declines representing a client because of inability to pay. And once hired, the small-town lawyers take very seriously their obligation to zealously represent their client’s interests. Justifiably, they insist on complete control of the lawsuit because he/she is the lawyer and not a “hired hand.”
Small-town lawyers take the time to connect with their clients and the clients’ causes, sometimes too fully. In the courtroom, my experience tells me they read the law and prepare for hearings. I believe the small-town lawyers deeply respect judges, demanding high standards of competency, impartiality and dignity from judges. They will hold back the other party, lawyer, public opinion and, on occasion, even the court. They never quit. But the small-town lawyer will also be brutally honest with his/her clients regarding chances of success and suggest settlement based upon all factors, not solely economics. And in the end, even when the case is lost, the small-town lawyers will sit with their client in the local watering hole and scorn the judge, jury and opposing counsel, which may be the “last rites” in finalizing a lost case with his/her client. Despite this scorning, the small-town lawyer maintains a genuine sense of dedication to the fair administration of justice.
In the community, the small-town lawyer holds his/her head high as the local lawyer, extending courtesy and honesty to all. Small-town lawyers genuinely love their profession. To them, law is a conviction and way of life. The small-town lawyers’ practices are a mission, not just a means of supporting themselves and their family. Undoubtedly, the small-town lawyer is not always popular in the local community, but they should be respected.