by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
Quite unexpectedly (being as I am a virtual recluse in a town which is but a satellite of the metropolis) I have been asked to meet with a third year law student who apparently has ambitions to practice law in a rural environment and seeks my take on it. He heard of me through one of his law professors who is a family friend. I understand the scholar is from a smaller urban centre and supposedly has hopes of returning to it upon being called to the Bar. Until now I hadn’t imagined that a small town law practice would hold any interest for an aspiring lawyer, not because I denigrate it but more because I felt it to be uncool or archaic (even if moderately quaint).
Not having much else to do at 1:30 a.m. this morning as I thrashed about amongst my duvet and Hudson’s Bay blanket, I contemplated what it is that I might usefully say of a specific nature about the practice of law in a small town. I want to avoid all the trite (though quite possibly true) observations which spring to mind about Main Street businesses and the chumminess which one expects to hear of the paternal professional and his trusting clientele. My contemplations took upon a gravity which seemingly caused me to lapse into a reverie for I was suddenly awoken at six o’clock this morning by the CBC radio news not having advanced significantly in my researches.
As I say there are a great many platitudes which exist to differentiate the rural and urban practice of law. There is however some foundation to those otherwise banal comments. It is for example generally accepted that the majority of one’s clients in the country are not going to be industrialists and hedge fund managers, at least not ones who have any interest in retaining me. Having said that one mustn’t think there are not opportunities to deal with rural people whose proprietary interests are extensive by any standard. Once I acted for a local gentleman who raised long-horn Highland cattle, flew his own plane and just happened to own 35,000 acres of land in New England. I needn’t tell you that when this chap had a question or two about this or that it wasn’t long before we were headed together to the city for an opinion. This man, like many others for whom I have acted in this neck of the woods, often preferred to be shepherded by a rural conveyancer rather than a senior partner in an ivory tower law firm which catered to financiers. It is important for a country lawyer to recognize the difference between talent and trust. The clever local business people still know the value of knowledge and expertise, even if they appreciate the comfort of a trusted local advisor. Besides there are admittedly many pedestrian elements of the practice of law which do not necessitate a genius any more than you need a shopping mall to have your shoes repaired.
I would be less than truthful or accurate to suggest that local business is somehow not real business. That would be a modesty bordering upon deception. There are, in fact, many people in the country who have succeeded in making a generous pile of the right stuff for themselves, and their affairs are no less complicated as a result. Even then, because so many of these “locals” have grown from the grass roots up, they frequently harbour the view that there is nothing either magical or elaborate about their affairs and more often than not they urge upon their professional advisors economy of words and expense.
For the rural practitioner the statistics are that the majority of one’s clients are so-called “every day people” with “every day needs” such as real estate conveyancing, wills, powers of attorney, estate settlements, simple incorporations and any number of contracts (business agreements such as leases, partnership agreements, shareholder agreements and co-ownership agreements; and domestic contracts such as prenuptial agreements, marriage contracts and separation agreements.). Not infrequently I am engaged in the creation of esoteric trust agreements for estate planning purposes, a niche which is not lost upon an aging and sometimes wealthy clientele. My experience is that while there is a hint from time to time that litigation is the answer to disputes, the customary course is that resolution is sought outside the court room, possibly because of the likelihood of having to rub shoulders with one’s adversary on the street. As such the rural practitioner is normally confined to a solicitor’s practice as opposed to a barrister’s practice. Obviously the avoidance of acrimony is preferable for the lawyer as well.
Not long after I arrived in town almost thirty-five years ago, I was asked by former acquaintances in the city when I would be returning. Quite frankly the question offended me as it suggested that my original decision was either a stop-gap or a mistake. In fact nothing could have been further from the truth. From the moment I arrived here I have thrown myself whole-heartedly into the prosecution of my duties and the cultivation of my practice and related social life with a view to making it better and last longer. This is not in my opinion a singular aspiration as almost all members of the rural bar whom I have known over the years have stuck to their business from the moment they began. The only exception is the urban lawyers who seek to set up a “branch” office in town. Those branch offices seldom last long. I cannot be certain why they do not succeed and I am satisfied to avoid idle speculation and possible offence upon the point.
On a day such as this, when the sunlight is streaming through the tall windows of my old brick office building flooding the rooms with yellow syrup, and a glance about reveals a studied collection of books, paintings, maps, clocks, rugs, lamps, safes and hardwood furnishings, it is impossible not to be persuaded by the advantage of a rural practice. Seeing a cyclist pass in the Town Square beyond and listening to the chime of the tower clock of the Old Post Office across the street do nothing but add to the rustic flavour which most will never know. Added to this is the privilege of being able to walk home in 15 minutes along the River.
As a bachelor I am not qualified to expatiate upon the quality of life which rural living affords one’s children, but considering the number of successful graduates of our local high-school I can safely venture to say it is of the highest caliber. It is unavoidable that during the past three and one-half decades I should have had the occasion and opportunity to get to know the children of certain of my clients and to see those children develop into intelligent and productive individuals, often excelling in their post-secondary educational pursuits.
Our Town Hall is an enviable theatre and concert venue, the acoustics of which are notorious and which attract the likes of CBC radio for recording the many illustrious artists who have visited and performed here. And if “dinner and a movie” is your thing, we are blessed with an extraordinary restaurant overlooking the upper falls of the River.
It is plain that the rewards of practising law in a small town go far beyond the scope of one’s professional avocation, though I would be remiss if I were not to allude to some of the characteristics of small town practice which make it so enjoyable. By way of example I recall the days when the entire Bar of the County rallied at a lodge near the County seat during the Assizes of the circuit Court Judge. It was an evening of fraternity and solidarity, inspiring the members of the Bar to know one another as people and associates, not merely as business acquaintances. Indeed it is fair to say that this elevated level of discourse prevails throughout the Bar to this day.
As for the experience of practising in a small town, in my mind is a parade of people for whom I have acted over the years. Not all the experiences were either rewarding or enjoyable, but the unpleasant experiences distinguish themselves mostly by their infrequency. Otherwise it has been an accumulation of knowledge, skills and anecdotes. When I succeeded to the practice of the elderly lawyer whom I replaced, I remarked how odd I thought it was that he took such a forceful role in the direction of his clients’ affairs. He thought nothing of being quite categorical about what his clients should or should not do. I have since learned that such a posture is not taking liberties with clients but rather taking hold of what for many people is not uncommonly a trying situation. It is true that the early years of my practice were marked by long hours and great challenges, at a time when everything was new and there was no one to turn to for help. Now that I am at the other end of my practice I don’t pretend to have broadened my knowledge base particularly; instead I have learned to confine my undertakings to what I do best and what I do most frequently, though I admit I have acquired certain tricks of the trade along the way, the greatest of which is to listen to one’s instincts.
The succession of a rural law practice from one lawyer to another is not without its concerns, most importantly for the reason that likely nobody really wants it or there is no reason to pay for what anybody else can technically start on their own. If there is any advantage at all I rather suspect it is in the hardware and the bricks and mortar and perhaps the inventory of Wills. For the time being my interest is not in leaving what I have. I have long ago adopted the policy that retirement age is something nearing age 80 years as was the case for my predecessor who retired at age 82 years after having practiced in this town for 56 years. One never likes to think of oneself becoming unfashionable merely as a result of advancing age, but I suppose it is as inevitable as anything else in this life. For the moment I amuse myself to think that I have a year or two to go before I reach the apex of my career and begin the rapid slide down the other side.