When Natalie Cobb Koehler was a student at South Texas College of Law in Houston, she decided that she would move back home to practice law. Koehler and her family now live on an oak- and cedar-covered ranch in Cranfills Gap in Central Texas, where her kids show animals in 4H and her husband co-stars in a horse and western lifestyle show on RFD-TV. Koehler has a broad solo law practice in nearby Meridian (population about 1,500) and has twice been elected as Bosque County attorney. She also was the president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association from 2011 to 2012.
This is the second installment in a series of blogs on the lives and careers of small-town lawyers. For more, go to texasbar.com/smalltown.
The move back home
My husband, Sean, and I made the decision to move to my family’s ranch in Cranfills Gap, population 291, before I even took the bar exam. I had received an offer of employment with a large Dallas firm, but rescinded it in exchange for the quality of life we knew we wanted to have in the future, such as raising our kids in a small town, involving our kids in agriculture, and raising them in a close-knit family environment. I was extremely nervous about rescinding the offer, but I am so glad I did. I believe that God always provides, and he puts you on the perfect path for where you need to be.
It was crazy at first because I not only missed my friends, I missed all the restaurants and conveniences like Central Market! My husband and I love good food and wine, and Houston has some of the best. However, we really enjoyed not sitting in traffic anymore. I can honestly say that I would pass a tractor and maybe two or three pickup trucks during my 100-mile round-trip commute to my first job. It was a totally different way of life.
For my first job, I practiced family, real estate, and probate law with a solo practitioner and title company in Erath County. It was basically baptism by fire from the first day. Luckily, my boss was a good mentor and believed in my skill set. I felt that my law school professors prepared me to actually practice law. My involvement in the Moot Court program also helped me be a confident public speaker. I’ll admit that many days I just “winged it” and tried my best. Fortunately, in most rural areas, the judges and other lawyers make you feel welcome and want to see you learn and do well—and they will help you as you go. Rural practice involves many facets of law and lots of listening. I get bored if I am not doing something different every single day so I like that I handle many different matters while seeing firsthand the actual impact I make in a person’s life.
The right fit
I was meant to practice in a rural community. Anyone who knows me can tell you I am most comfortable in a pair of boots. I feel better when I know about my clients’ lives—their kids’ first names, even their grandkids’ first names—as well as their story. I have been able to make the most positive impact on my community by serving as county attorney. I’m the CPS prosecutor, misdemeanor prosecutor, protective order prosecutor, and civil legal counsel. As you can imagine, I never do the same thing any two days in a row, and I like it that way.
It can sometimes be hard to break into a rural area if you were not raised in that area. However, in my experience, most small towns are so glad to have new people that you will be made to feel welcome after a bit. You just have to get involved in a variety of community and civic organizations. You will have a client base and new friendships before you know it. You may not make the big bucks you thought you would coming out of law school. I was once paid a fee with a horse! However, the cost of living can be lower, and the personal satisfaction that comes from helping people is amazing. Be prepared to be well versed in lots of areas of law; you cannot just focus on one specific area.
I think a lot of new lawyers have the same idea I had—that being a lawyer meant the skyscraper office building and a large firm. However, there are opportunities outside metropolitan areas where lawyers are desperately needed and appreciated. With Texas’s global climate, increasing job market in suburban areas, and oil and gas play in rural areas, I encourage all new lawyers to look at servicing these communities.