Roy B. Ferguson and his attorney wife, Pene, started their careers in Houston, but in 1999, they moved almost 600 miles to one of the state’s least-populated regions, a place with high-desert vistas of the Davis Mountains and Big Bend where both of them have family roots. Their law office in Marfa, which they opened years before the tiny town became a tourist destination, has been the only full-time practice in Presidio County for more than 13 years. In 2012, Ferguson was elected judge of the 394th Judicial District, which encompasses Brewster, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Hudspeth, and Presidio counties and covers more of the U.S.-Mexico border than any other district in Texas. Here Ferguson talks about shooting it straight, staying on the judge’s good side, and letting clients cry.
This is the fourth installment in a series of blogs on the lives and careers of small-town lawyers. For more, go to texasbar.com/smalltown.
photo by Carolyn Miller/Fort Davis, TX
The way to make it.
The skills and traits most helpful for lawyers seeking to succeed in the small-town setting are, I think, a strong work ethic, personal integrity, and empathy. Lawyers are retained based on word-of-mouth. Your reputation—personal and professional—determines your level of success. The community must trust you not only to work hard for them but also to treat them fairly. Because everyone knows where you are at all times—they recognize your car, for example—you must put in the hours at the office. You must act professionally, both in the courtroom and at the local bar. Stories spread quickly. If you act like a buffoon or fall asleep in court even one time, your business will suffer. If you get drunk in public, or flirt openly with a married woman, your clientele will quietly taper off.
In rural areas, you get the clients that you earn. If you are seen as abusive or “Rambo,” you will get clients who are looking to fight or hurt the other side. If you are perceived as unscrupulous, you will get clients who expect you to do anything to win. If you don’t pay your bills, then you will get clients who never intend to pay you for your services.
The relationship with your district judge is crucial. Unlike in areas where you might only see a particular judge once every few years, you will see a rural judge in every case you take. If you lie, he or she is likely to remember it for a long time.
The listening and the learning.
My goal as a lawyer was that every person who came in to see me would feel better when they left. My legal assistants half-joked that not a day went by that someone didn’t cry in my conference room. Be patient, and let people talk. I typically spent three hours a day listening to people whom I did not represent as they unloaded their problems and asked for reassurance.
It was not uncommon to spend an hour with an elderly person who received a spam email, telling her that she had won a nonexistent lottery, or explaining to someone that a bill collector could not have them arrested or take their house no matter what they claimed on the phone. To succeed as a community lawyer, you must dedicate yourself to the needs of the community. It is emotionally taxing on you, but you can and will make a real difference in their lives.
Family law and real estate are the most common legal needs of citizens on the civil litigation side. Wills and probate are increasingly important. Criminal defense is also important in the 394th, which contains over 400 miles (20-plus percent) of the U.S.-Mexico border. But you will practice in legal areas outside of your comfort zone. Take cases that stretch your skills, so you don’t get complacent. Hit the books. You must be conversant in every area of general practice, and you must be able to assure clients that you will be the most educated person in the room when their case goes to court.
Don’t pretend to know it all. They don’t expect you to know everything, but they expect you to be able to find out. “I don’t know as we sit here today, but I’ll find out and then we’ll both know,” is a powerful phrase. And you must not promise what you cannot produce. Give them a realistic expectation of outcome, and then if they demand better, send them to a competitor.
The hours are long, and clients have the same expectations regardless of the stakes. Remember, $150,000 to a Dallas corporation creates less of an impact than $10,000 to a small-town resident. To many of your clients, the money they pay you is almost impossible to absorb. They will mortgage their lives and borrow from everyone they know to pay your $5,000 retainer, and they will be shocked and suspicious when it’s gone in 60 days. They will put their families, their businesses, and their homes in your hands. It is a great responsibility, and the weight of it can be overwhelming if you are not prepared for it.
Participation and visibility is crucial, but it must be sincere. Rural communities want someone who shoots straight and works hard. You will be given countless opportunities to help those in need and the community at large. In small towns, everyone must do everything. People who join civic organizations do so because they are devoted to the cause. Do not join charitable organizations for marketing purposes. Insincerity will be recognized, and you will pay the price.
Attending local community meetings is crucial, however, as it shows you are truly interested in the community. You don’t need to take the dias or dominate the discussion. Just be there and pay attention. Do not align yourself politically with the people or persons in power in the hopes of speeding your ascension. Today’s leaders are tomorrow’s pariahs. Local power figures come and go, but you want your professional success to last a lifetime.
Meet everyone you can. Walk everywhere you go. A smile and a wave, or a quick friendly word at the post office, is fantastic marketing. The more comfortable people are with you, the more likely they are to tell you their troubles and ask for your advice.
The changing numbers.
The 394th makes up an area larger than West Virginia. In two of these counties, excluding the county attorney, there are no lawyers in local private practice. In another, there is one lawyer in full-time local private practice other than the county attorney. In the fourth, there are a couple of part-time practices, but no full-time law firms. In the past few years, we have had an influx of young attorneys into Alpine, the most populous county seat, who travel among the counties. And lawyers from Odessa and El Paso travel the two hours for cases that justify the cost. But for the day-to-day needs of local rural residents, the options are few.
There are not sufficient numbers of attorneys in the area. And in these rural ranching or border communities, they usually can’t afford to bring out-of-town lawyers in. They either do their best with whatever they can find, or they simply don’t assert their rights.
Being a lawyer in a rural setting is practicing law the way it was meant to be done. You care for the community, and fight for justice. You make a real and personal difference in people’s lives. And in return, you are financially rewarded and personally fulfilled beyond your hopes or expectations, in a way often absent from city practice. Moving to West Texas was one of the best decisions I ever made, and in over 15 years, I have never once looked back on that decision with regret. I encourage each lawyer to examine their goals – both personal and professional – to determine whether he or she is on the career path toward personal fulfillment. You don’t have to wait until retirement age to move to a small town. Go where you want to be. Work hard, and success will follow.