By Andrea Welker • March 16, 2010•Writers in Residence
“And where are you from?”
It’s the inevitable question I’m asked whenever I meet a new client. Although I grew up in a small town in central Kentucky, I never developed much of an accent. My last name isn’t recognizable. I suppose I dress rather different too. Therefore, people are curious where I come from and how I ended up out here.
Origins are important, the geographical and personal connections which define us. There are a particular set of experiences, beliefs and values that bind together a community, and that sense of culture is the reference point in not only understanding others but ourselves. Granted, moving to a small town certainly has its share of culture shock for those accustomed to more hustle and bustle, but it’s more than just a change of pace that makes small town life different from life in a larger community. By its very nature, small towns have less: less traffic and less crowding due to lower population, but fewer resources and fewer opportunities. However, it is the unique way individuals interact with one another and the relationships they build that are essential in the small pond.
These relationships are fundamental to one’s success. If you are returning to your hometown, then you have the advantage of being a native and having already developed the relationships, or at least through members of your family. For those my age, it means you grew up with the very people now rising to the level of leadership within that community. You know them and their families, for better or worse. This gives you an advantage over someone (like me) who is coming into an unfamiliar community, but don’t make the mistake of becoming complacent by just relying on the contacts you already have, particularly if you’ve been absent for awhile. Learning the players takes time, just as it does in building new relationships. The advantage I have as an outsider, however, is in not being pigeonholed by who I was as a child and young adult or the reputations of my family members. I have the power to set the parameters of the relationships I forge.
Building relationships can be very difficult for people, particularly when they feel like a fish out of water. There is a presumption that lawyers know how to talk to people, but many simply do not. Also, it can be incredibly difficult to meet people and develop new relationships, even if you’re a social butterfly. It isn’t necessarily that people are unfriendly, but not everyone is interested in adding a new person into a circle of contacts and not everyone in a small town is warm and welcoming. Some communities are also more welcoming than others, and again, experiences often come down to the individual. Particularly challenging is recruiting new clients, who tend to have a strong sense of loyalty to an attorney who they’ve always used and who likely also represents their family and close friends.
Even so, new professional relationships are much easier to develop than friendships with people who share your particular interests and values. In a large city, it isn’t as difficult to find a group of like-minded individuals with whom to associate. When I first moved out here, someone told me to try Meetup.com to find some new friends. However, the only two groups in the area was one dedicated to electing Rand Paul to Congress (no, thank you) and the other was devoted to Paranormal Activities (too strange, even for me). Instead, I relied upon the friends and contacts I already had in order to seek introductions to new people with whom I might click.
Additionally, joining social and business organizations is a great way to meet new people. While the local bar association might not have much activity in a small town, and you’ll probably very quickly meet all of the lawyers just by being in the courthouse, other professional organizations (particularly for young professionals) are excellent ways to meet new people and develop not only business relationships but friendships. Charity organizations, political organizations, art galleries, bars (if your town isn’t dry) and coffee shops are equally good opportunities. Just striking up a conversation with people in a store can turn into a friendship. One of the things I like best about my new town are the charming little shops, and I’ll usually strike up conversations with the clerks.
It is important to note, however, that in a small town, missteps are much more difficult to overcome. In a larger community that affords a certain amount of anonymity, a bad reputation is not necessarily detrimental. However, when everyone very quickly knows your name, a few negative opinions circling about can be difficult to combat. On the flipside, however, even though you might not be familiar with the players, everyone else is, and a frank conversation with a trusted local about someone’s reliability and ability to play fair can save you a lot of headache, as I recently learned the hard way.
Finally, in my personal experience, I’ve found that the legal community in a small town is a lot more pleasant, at least on the surface. When you have to work with the same group of people for all of your cases, you don’t want to create an atmosphere of animosity. It’s a lot easier to be rude to an attorney that you’ll never work with or even see again than it is to be rude to someone you might need a favor from in the near future because you have dozens of cases together. While I can’t say that every attorney I’ve met actually respects me, or has been straight with me, I’ve been treated with much more respect than I have from many attorneys in larger cities.
Although members of communities most often share a series of common traits, each is an individual. It is important to acknowledge cultural stereotypes and move beyond them, and this is particularly important when developing new relationships. The next column will discuss understanding the surrounding culture, and the various ways culture affects legal practice.