I love to have guest bloggers. I wrote about my hometown the other day, and I heard such wonderful stories from my readers that I asked a few of them if they’d like to guest blog. Robbie Harrison, one of my childhood pals, took me up on the offer. Thanks, Robbie, for sharing your little slice of life. Enjoy!
I didn’t always want to be a lawyer. When I was younger, like most boys, I wanted to be a police officer, a fireman or a solider, at various times. As I grew into adolescence, I thought I might want to be a doctor or a veterinarian. When I was in high school and figured out what he really did for a living, I thought I wanted to be a sports journalist like Mr. Sam King. I mean, what could be better than getting paid to go to a ball game, especially when the trip and the ticket were on somebody else’s dime, right?
I am not really sure what drew me to a career in law. Even when I was in high school, I didn’t even know any lawyers, and there sure weren’t any in Watson. But, as it turns out, my alma mater, Live Oak High, has turned out some great people, some of whom have become good lawyers. The first one I know of is not an alumnus, but a former teacher/principal, Judge William Dawkins. Judge Dawkins was the principal at Live Oak when my Daddy graduated in 1942. Like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, he left his school job, was commissioned as an officer in the Army and served for 3 years in combat overseas. When he came home, Mr. Dawkins used his GI Bill to go to law school, became an attorney and was later a district judge. Others from Live Oak who have chosen the same path I did include people like Tom Jones (‘69), Shelby Easterly (‘69), Bill Justice (‘78), Tom Peak (‘77), Chris Strobel (‘80) and Mike Bouleware (‘81).
What separates me from those fellow Eagles and colleagues is that after law school and a few years practicing in Baton Rouge, I decided that my destiny was to come home and practice law in Watson LA. Pretty quickly, I found out that there was a lot about practicing law that they didn’t teach you in law school, and even more about practicing in a small town, whether that is Cut Off, Chauvin, Crowville, or Watson. One thing I soon found out was that my chosen career had many elements in common with my previous career possibilities. Like Mr. Sam, I do a lot of writing. Like a fireman, I fight fires every day. Like a police officer, I encourage people to obey the law. And, like a veterinarian, it seems like I spend a lot of time dealing with one particular end of numerous horses (my horses tend to come in the form of certain clients, other lawyers and some judges, but I digress).
I guess the idyllic portrait of a small town Southern lawyer is Atticus Finch. In fact, I often tell people – when they ask what kind of lawyer I am – if they have seen or read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I am Atticus Finch. There are definitely some neat things about practicing law in your hometown. Your clients are usually your friends, folks you have known most of your life. This can be both good and bad at times. In a small town, you can’t avoid your clients. If you neglect to return their phone calls, you will inevitably run into them at church….or the grocery store….or the gas station….. or the other locations where “life” takes place.
Another thing that bothers me is when people know me but I don’t know them. I will admit that even as gregarious a person as I am, I am really bad about remembering names and faces. Over the years I have figured out a hierarchy. If I run into someone who calls me Robert or Mr. Harrison, it is someone I know professionally. If they call me Bob, they are trying to sell me something. But, if they call me Robbie, this is someone I am supposed to know. I have discovered that it is very disconcerting when someone calls you by your childhood pet name, and you have no idea who they are.
Fees are approached differently in small towns. Small town lawyers represent real people. While big city lawyers may be used to representing clients like banks, insurance companies and corporations who plan for legal expenses and are used to paying them, such is not the case in a small town. Most of my clients find themselves in an unfamiliar situation when they need to hire an attorney. They usually didn’t anticipate needing a lawyer, and while they may have saved to pay their property taxes, their insurance or even for a new roof on the house, it never entered their mind to save up for the day they need a lawyer. It often makes setting and collecting fees a little challenging. I have to say that most of my clients are very good about paying their bill, albeit maybe not as promptly as I would like. And, while I hate to burst anybody’s bubble, I don’t get paid in chickens or eggs. Atticus getting paid by Mr. Cunningham in hickory nuts and firewood paints a bucolic picture, but it just ain’t gonna happen in real life.
Having said that, I have had many clients who have showered me with gratuities, or as we say in Louisiana – lagniappe. I guess if I was a cab driver or a waiter at Arnaud’s they would be classified as tips, but I prefer to count them as gifts. I have received some wonderful Christmas baked goods, a kicking brandy fruitcake, plenty of homegrown tomatoes, boiled peanuts, mustard greens and an antique Victrola cabinet (sans Victrola), a porcelain statue of the angel Michael (The Defender) and numerous other goodies. Never in lieu of a fee, but as a way to say thank you. If you doubt this, you should know that as I was contemplating writing this, one of my oldest and most faithful clients stopped by my office and left three and a half dozen fresh yard eggs as way to say thank you for helping her recently disabled husband with some free advice. (Sometimes the largesse spills over to my staff; she brought 2 ½ dozen for me and a dozen for my paralegal, Terri). I doubt many big firm lawyers have ever been the recipient of homemade pralines or fresh eggs.
Another thing that differs is that big city lawyers representing the powers that be are generally part of a team. Their clients may have many lawyers, along with accountants, tax experts, media consultants, jury consultants and experts of every shape and form. My clients usually have a team that consists of one…..me. So, you have to get used to wearing many hats and filling many roles. I quickly discovered that many times my clients come to me not because they need legal advice, but because they just need advice in general. I am not sure why they choose me for this. Maybe it’s because they think they have a legal issue. Maybe it’s because they see me as a well-educated resource. Maybe it’s because they think I am a person they can talk to in confidence. But for whatever reason, when you are a hometown lawyer, you’d better be prepared to hold forth on many varied subjects. Oftentimes, the advice I give is not particularly legal advice, but just life advice. It is very satisfying when people come to you thinking they are at the end of their rope, and after you give them some advice they find out that, not only is there a solution, there is also hope. Funny how sometimes a little simple advice can make people think you have changed their lives.
One experience that I have had on several occasions is helping out clients who can’t read. If you’ve ever seen the movie Doc Hollywood, with Michael J. Fox, you will remember the scene where he is reading their mail to a patient and her husband. Believe it or not, that has happened to ole Robbie on more than one occasion. The first time was with an elderly client. He couldn’t read, but could tell when he got something that looked “official” in the mail. He showed up at my office one day with an official looking missive from the Social Security Administration. He asked me to read it for him. Thinking he wanted my opinion, I began to read it silently, when he looked at me and said “No. Read it TO me.” Turns out he had a neighbor who used to read for him, but the neighbor died and so, for some reason, I became the designated reader. Not exactly high powered legal work, but you try to help everybody you can.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I had chosen that career in law enforcement. Especially now that I am in my 50’s and would have about 30 years in that line of work. The irony is not lost on me that my friends who started out in law enforcement at the same time I would have are now either retired or about to retire while I, on the other hand, am still showing up for work every day. But, such is life.
This could go on and on, but I will close by saying that I have found my career path to be very satisfying. I know all the lawyer jokes. I also know that lawyers rank in popularity with used car salesmen and proctologists. I think it is sad that 90% of lawyers seem to give the rest of us a bad name. But, the interesting thing is that while most people have a very dim view of lawyers, they usually think that THEIR lawyer is a pretty good guy, whom they genuinely trust. I have been fortunate to have many of those clients over the years. I am not a genius and I am no Clarence Darrow or Johnny Cochran. I am a pretty good lawyer, who has had the privilege of making a positive difference in the lives of regular people by providing them with legal counsel and advocacy, while guiding them through life’s challenges. I haven’t gotten rich doing it, but I have made a good living and, occasionally I take home some fresh tomatoes or mustard greens. All in all, it’s not been a bad choice.