DennisBeaverOctober 10, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Last week we looked at a common misconception — “the best” lawyers aren’t going to be found in smaller towns. Of course, the same thing is often said of doctors; if you want a really good physician, then you’ve got to go elsewhere. This kind of thinking is an insult to so many excellent doctors and lawyers who could go anywhere they would like, but choose to practice in small town America.

Now, I am no brilliant legal scholar, but consider myself to be reasonably competent with the kinds of cases I take. Yet, I often am asked, “Beav, with your ability, what are you doing in a hick town like Bakersfield?” My answer is that I moved away from Los Angeles, and like being able to drive 12 minutes to my office and walk to court in five minutes. That usually ends the discussion on a positive note.

While there can indeed be times when you need to retain an out of area lawyer, over the years “You and the Law” has heard from readers who fell for TV ads by personal injury “mills” resulting in disappointing results.

Rissa Stuart practices personal injury law in Hanford — clearly small town America — and has seen first hand the results of placing a phone call to one of these “800” numbers. She believes that it is almost always in the client’s best interest to stay local.

“If you are in a town with several lawyers who handle personal injury cases, it is extraordinarily rare for a need to go out of the area. All personal injury cases require a great deal of on-going, at times daily contact with your lawyer. Hire a personal injury mill, and you are left not knowing who you’re dealing with or what experience they have,” Attorney Stuart warns.

“You call, they send out someone to sign you up, usually not a lawyer and you may never meet the lawyer who handles your case. You cannot have a normal attorney-client relationship under these circumstances.

“With a local lawyer who routinely handles personal injury cases, trust relationships are established with insurance adjusters and this benefits the client. In handling cases where I know and have worked with the adjuster, sometimes much can be done with just one quick phone call. It is well established that adjusters will go that extra mile when they have a good working relationship with the attorney. This can easily mean a better settlement,” she points out.

“There is another reason a local lawyer will work harder for every client, than someone from far out of town who could care less about reputation. A local lawyer is involved with the community. I cannot tell you the number of times I am called by someone who lives here, hired one of those personal injury mills, and wound up with a lower settlement than they should have received. It makes you angry.”

Need a will, trust or estate plan? Thinking of starting a business? Have a kid who got into trouble with the law? Got one speeding ticket too many, and need to do something?

“All of these common situations require individualized attention from a lawyer who needs to be easily accessible, not out of town, or only reachable by phone. This is so true with family estate planning. Clients should not be looking for a cheap estate plan or trust, from trust mills, whose goal is usually the sale of insurance products,” she cautioned.

“But where staying local can be most critical, is with both criminal law and certain business matters, as relationships matter here perhaps more than in any other legal area,” she believes.

“With business matters — local issues, for example obtaining a zoning variance, positive experiences with other lawyers, city government, and the courts — all of this can be critical to the client. Someone from out of town — who might be an excellent attorney — could lack local contacts and be far less effective.

“Criminal lawyers develop a reputation with law enforcement, the D.A.’s Office, and of course the courts. It is human nature to be more inclined to trust someone you know from experience. That will benefit the client. Research studies confirm that juries are more sympathetic to lawyers from their own communities who have established good reputations,” the Hanford attorney concluded.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.