Twenty years ago, Paul Looney, 60, moved from Houston to the nearby town of Bellville to raise his daughter. He spent years commuting to the city every day to practice law but eventually realized there were opportunities in neighboring Hempstead, population about 5,700. Looney has been a happy and successful small-town attorney ever since. He talks about participating in the community, holding weekly happy hours, and avoiding anonymity.
This is the third installment in a series of blogs on the lives and careers of small-town lawyers. For more, go to texasbar.com/smalltown.
I had a traditional big-city practice with high fees and a limited number of clients. Maybe six or seven years ago, I moved a portion of my law practice into a small county and opened up a 400-square foot office. I wanted to get back to working for normal human beings. In a big community, in order to support a practice, we end up all too frequently working for nothing but corporations and rich people. While that makes a living, it’s just boring as hell. Real people with real issues and real lives and real problems—it’s rewarding as it can be when you step in when they’re in a time of need and put them in a position where they can have their life back.
I found that most of the attorneys in the small town had gotten into the habit of just going to work and going home and they weren’t involved in their community like attorneys were 30 or 40 years ago, when every civic project of any serious merit was spearheaded in large measure by attorneys. Some attorneys’ businesses are suffering from not doing that, as is the image of our profession. By being devoted to putting out good quality legal work, my market share has exploded. The income is there, the need from the community is most assuredly there. Lawyers are the most highly trained people on social issues, and we’re depriving our community of their most valuable assets when we’re not participating.
The community I spend a lot of time in Hempstead. I go to meetings, walk around and meet people who have the tire shop or the resale store. In a small town, networking and leadership mean everything when it comes to the success of your practice.
If you want to be anonymous, go to a big city. If you want to have hundreds of friends, go to a small town. I host a community happy hour every Wednesday and Sunday night. Anybody can come by who wants to. I provide the libations, and we hang out for an hour and a half. And we’ve created a fairly significant size group of people who care about what’s happening in each other’s lives. In a big city, you’re part of the maze of people, and when you’re gone, nobody will remember you were even there.
When my daughter was born, I picked a small town about an hour and a half from Houston and decided that I would make a sacrifice and do a lot of driving. I wanted more of a community atmosphere for her than what I had. What surprised me was how nurturing it was and how much I enjoyed it. Now that my daughter is grown, I always expected to go back to Houston, but you couldn’t pry me out of there with a crow bar—I love the small town.
I guess you can get a small town that is far enough isolated that you might miss the fine dining. As long as I’ve got it within an hour and a half or two hours, I don’t. Occasionally I’ll get a hotel room for a Friday and Saturday night right down in the center of Houston. I’ll go to a nice restaurant and then bar hop and have a city weekend and it scratches the itch.
When I first moved, I did have a ranch. But I’m just not a rural kind of guy. I like having my neighbors, I like it when they’re across the street yelling at each other and we all get to listen. I like it better when animals are seen and not heard. You don’t have to be bubba to be able to prosper emotionally in a small town. And you don’t have to be overly conservative. I’m as liberal as anybody I know, and people in the small town laugh at me but they still call me when they need to know how to do something because they love my mind.
The practice and the need
Whenever people come into your office who have been working at the mechanic shop, they don’t smell as well as the people who come in your office and they arrive there by limousine. They frequently come in with their kids and babies. You don’t get the huge single payday, but you get a lot of really steady work.
We have convinced ourselves that we need to be experts in microscopic areas of law, and it’s just not the case. If an attorney will become really good at the Rules of Procedure and the Rules of Evidence, you can move from area of law to another pretty gracefully and easily. Everybody needs a divorce, and in a small town, it appears to me that everybody needs a divorce twice. And nearly everybody is going to have some probate needs. Other than that, it’s the same as in a big city. It’s the stuff that your Uncle Jim and Aunt Sara get into.
Modern society requires legal services just to function. To the extent that we leave people in a position where they can’t get those services, their lives are such a horrible struggle. We have a special talent, we have special skills—we also have a special responsibility. And we can’t leave people out there starving and struggling. Now, lawyers don’t have to feed everybody, but we do have to structure ourselves where we can service everybody. We don’t need people who have been separated for 26 years, they have children with other people, and they still can’t afford a divorce. We just can’t do that to people.
Many law schools have developed corporate placement policies to the extent that they focus on that to exclusion of almost everything else. I think that model is not going to be available going forward. I still encourage every young person to become a lawyer—the future is terrific and the work is fun. But, we need to go back to focusing on the notion that you’re going to come out of law school and you’re going to open an office and be an entrepreneur. That model is still viable and profitable.
I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t be able to prosper in a small town—provided that they would get out of their house. For the person who wants to be more integrated in the community, small towns give that opportunity. It’s a great place to break in. You can live cheaper and make a good living. There are 20 attorneys within this county, and we all know each other pretty well and everybody works to help get issues resolved. If I need a consultation, it’s not hard to say, “Hey, can I stop by and drink a cup of your coffee?” It’s very collegial.
I love what I do. Monday morning is still more fun than Saturday morning. I have no intention of retiring—ever. My goal is to try a criminal jury trial to a not-guilty verdict after reaching age 100. I live for this job.