Small Town Lawyers: No high-rise, corner office here, but other perks make up for it

There was a time when those looking for an attorney would seek players in the large offices in the big cities. For the lawyers themselves, those firms and locations often stood as the benchmark for success.

Today, those working in small towns often boast the same education and resources as their peers in the corner office in the big city high-rise. They just do it from the likes of Kalkaska, Mancelona and Honor.

Take Tony Wittbrodt. The Flint native worked in Wayne County and then his hometown before opting to move to the relative obscurity of Elk Rapids. While he and his wife had a vacation home at The Homestead in Glen Arbor, they found themselves often driving over an hour to his brother’s in Elk Rapids. So they found a place closer to his brother on East Grand Traverse Bay, and in 2001 moved lock, stock and practice to his new home.

“How can you not like Elk Rapids?” he asked, rhetorically.

Catherine Wolfe moved north from the Detroit area following a couple of incidents downstate. She was an attorney for a judge in circuit court in Oakland when there was a bomb scare, and law clerk intern Eve August was killed by a gunman in the Buhl Building in 1982.

That was enough for Wolfe. She moved north, working first in Frankfort before settling in Honor. She had vacationed in the area as a young girl, and every time they drove through town and she saw the village limits sign, she thought it would be wonderful to be an attorney in Honor.

Now she enjoys the relative proximity of Traverse City while relishing the rural lifestyle (her undergraduate degree is in Fisheries and Wildlife).

“I wanted to be close to a city of moderate size. I have my office in my home, and 17½ aces and a private lake,” she said.

On the other hand, Scott Isles and Barry Cole are both hometown boys made good. Isles returned to Kalkaska after practicing in Midland, while Cole moved back home to Mancelona and set up his practice upon passing the bar.

“I grew up in Kalkaska, the fifth of six kids to graduate from Kalkaska, so I know everybody, their brothers and sisters, their aunts and uncles,” said Isles. “You have someone call with a problem, and you know everyone on both sides.”

Cole moved back to the area right after school.

“I had opportunities downstate but wanted to come home. I grew up here and wanted to raise children here. You don’t have the violence and a lot of the problems like in the big city,” he said.

Different than downstate

Isles said the relationships among attorneys, judges and staffs make it easier to do his job.

“It’s still small enough you know the attorneys and judges. It’s a congenial place to work. In Saginaw and Flint, there’s nothing civil about working in those courts. You’re already in the middle of somebody’s huge emotional problem,” he said, and an adversarial relationship between attorneys only makes it worse.

“Practicing here is totally different,” agreed Wittbrodt. He, too, lauds the congeniality among attorneys. He says the other thing that stands out is the fact there are fewer judges for a larger territory. “Grand Traverse, Antrim, Leelanau – the judges are all the same.”

There is a downside: Because the judges are spread so much thinner, he said it is more difficult to get on the court docket.

“In Flint, you could file on a Wednesday and be in court on Monday. Here it’s tough to get into court.”

The role of technology

All of these small town lawyers cite the advances in technology as a huge benefit. The worldwide web does indeed give them worldwide reach.

“I have clients I’ve never seen,” said Wolfe. “I have a client in New Mexico, two in Canada.”

As for those large law libraries taking up valuable square footage in an office, the digital age means virtually every reference they might need is available online.

“All you really need is a cell phone and a laptop,” said Isles.

Cole has gone so far as to shutter his Mancelona office in favor of working from home. “I closed my office in May. It’s archaic. I’m saving money by not having a storefront. I can do everything from my basement,” he said.

He even advertises on his website that he makes house calls.

“This area has shifted from families to retirees,” he noted, meaning his practice has also shifted to doing more estate planning and the like. So he has decided to go where his clients are. “I’m offering a service firms in Traverse City couldn’t.”

Specialization – or not

Working in law in a small town means filling a variety of roles. Real estate, litigation, personal injury – whatever needs doing.

“It’s like a general practitioner – it’s whatever somebody who walks in the door needs,” said Cole.

That doesn’t mean attorneys don’t have a special interest in certain areas. Wolfe works in a variety of animal cases. She started a charity for animal cruelty and has given presentations and taught classes on how to win animal cruelty cases, and has spoken with veterinarians, local humane societies, and others who love animals. She said the resulting publicity has helped her land clients seeking assistance in other areas.

“They (potential clients) see I practice animal law and give me their business,” said Wolfe.

Isles, whose focus was on criminal defense, has represented numerous clients accused of violent crimes, including murder. Here, he said, most of the cases involve far less serious problems. “Somebody got in a fight because another guy was kissing his girlfriend. They were drunk in public. Their dog got loose,” he said.

The practice of law here is no different, said Wittbrodt, but the distances are greater than in the city.

“Everything’s at least a half hour away. You’re on the road a lot more frequently,” he said.

That can bring its own problems, but again, the congeniality can assuage some of that.

“You’re going from Tawas to Grayling and there’s road construction. You call and say you’re going to be late, they say okay, and put you at the bottom” of the court docket,” said Isles.

These attorneys and those who, like them, choose to  and practice in a small town could work in Traverse City or even a Grand Rapids or Detroit. While they don’t have that corner office overlooking the city, the other perks make up for it.

“I have an international practice. I live in the Honor swamp,” said Wolfe with a laugh. “It’s the best of both worlds.”