|Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2008|
Seneca lawyer Carol Chaffee doesn’t work alone. She has two associates, Big and Bob.
But Big and Bob never went to law school; they’re domesticated bobcats. Chaffee’s office is in her home, a 69-year-old former boarding house for bachelor loggers. And Chaffee is the only lawyer in Seneca, a community of 225 hardy souls in Oregon’s High Desert Bear Valley between John Day and Burns.
"There’s really nothing else out here," says Chaffee, who, like an unknown number of other Oregon private-practice lawyers and a few criminal prosecutors, has traded isolation and its concomitant fear of making mistakes for lifestyle. Some of them have dealt with the double whammy of being not only alone but new to the practice of law as well.
No one knows how many Oregon lawyers fit the profile of being the only lawyer in town. Although the bar directory divides members who practice in Oregon by city, some lawyers don’t work where their mail is sent; some don’t really practice much law; and some aren’t really alone in town. ("(Paul) Pierson’s address says Brookings, but it’s wrong," says Patrick Foley, who erroneously is listed as the only lawyer in Harbor, an unincorporated area of Brookings, when in fact Pierson also practices in Harbor.)
Still, Chaffee isn’t the only one out there. According to the bar’s 2007 economic survey of active, active emeritus and active pro bono members, 25 percent of lawyers statewide say that they are sole practitioners. And, while only 11 percent of lawyers in Portland are in one-lawyer offices, the percentage for the other six regions of the state identified in the survey ranged from 21 percent, in the upper Willamette Valley, to 39 percent, on the Oregon Coast.
Here are the stories of some who — really and truly — fly solo.
Carol Chaffee used to have a more typical lawyer’s life. After graduating from Gonzaga University School of Law in 1990 at age 41, she practiced appellate law in Washington, Nevada and Idaho until 2006.
That’s when her husband, an ardent motorcycle tourist, found a two-story wooden building that had been built in 1939, by the Edward Hines Lumber Company in Seneca, as a boarding house for bachelor loggers.
"It had sat there for a dozen years," says Chaffee, "but it was a pretty neat, solid building."
The couple bought it and named it BearCat Lodge, after the valley and their breeder-born bobcats, one of whom rides around the valley on the Lodge’s Arctic Cat ATV and can be walked on a leash. They operate the lodge as what their website calls "one of Oregon’s true four-season resorts."
"It’s a private lodge," says Chaffee. "We’re pretty selective about who we have here because it’s our home, too. No pets or little kids, for obvious reasons. We get mushroom hunters, hikers, some (animal) hunters; it’s a really interesting mix of clientele."
When they bought the lodge, Chaffee had thought about having an appellate law practice. "All of my past practice was in appellate," she says. "I could do pretty much all of Eastern Oregon."
Another alternative was working for other attorneys in neighboring communities.
But the reality is that, for now, the lodge project is "so big" — 5,000 square feet on each of two floors — that it overwhelms those options.
Instead, Chaffee maintains what she calls an "active, limited practice," mostly DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants) and small civil cases.
Chaffee says that if she decides to develop an appellate practice, she will charge accordingly. Currently, however, she says her practice borders on pro bono: she keeps her legal fees low to accommodate her rural clients and her income covers little more than bar dues, professional liability insurance and office expenses. (Like Grant County’s old country doctors, she accepts barter for her services: no chickens yet but she says the bobcats remain hopeful.)
Chaffee, who sees her clients in her office at the lodge, says it doesn’t bother her that she knows most of the people she represents, either because they are fellow residents of Bear Valley or have been referred by lodge guests.
"I haven’t had a problem with it yet," says Chaffee, who says clients typically start by saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I have a problem, I need your help.’"
"Certainly if someone I knew was in trouble, that would be the first person I’d offer to help," she says.
Chaffee says that what has been hard has been transitioning from appellate law to an actual practice.
"I’m a bit of a control freak," she admits. "I like that nice cold (appellate) record, really knowing it and nailing it. Trial is a little weird; plea bargaining is a little weird. Who do you call to schedule a hearing? Is it ex parte to call the judge’s secretary? On one case, I went to arraignment without my client. The judge said, ‘We require that here.’ When you’re in your 50s, people expect you to have 30 years experience."
But even as she gets more comfortable as a practicing lawyer, Chaffee is looking ahead to another career.
"I want to mine Oregon sunstone, the state’s official gemstone," she says. "I want to cut it and make it into jewelry. It’s been mined actively for the last 20 years, but the miners didn’t know how to market it. My brother and I started a company. I want to make a lot of money, be a gemstone tycoon. I’d love to make my money with gemstones instead of law; it sounds so much more exotic."
Patrick Foley, the only lawyer in Harbor per the bar directory but who actually shares this unincorporated area just south of Brookings with lawyer Paul Pierson, graduated from law school in California in 1975. He practiced there until he became a member of the Oregon State Bar in 1980.
Every day Foley, who lives on five acres on the Brookings side of the Chetco River, crosses the bridge to his office in Harbor, serving the population of about 16,000 who live between the Pistol River north of Brookings and the California border.
"That’s the trade area," says Foley, whose general practice includes criminal defense, domestic relations and probate.
"I was DA here from 1997 to 2001," he says. "I didn’t run again; I couldn’t afford it (because of the pay). "It takes three months to gross $10,000 a month when you start (in private practice) here. Then you can gross around $20,000 month."
Foley says that he has represented "three generations of people now. I do know a lot of my clients; when they walk into my office, I probably know them. But I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, so it’s not that strange to me. If I’m uncomfortable representing someone, I just say no. There’s lots of things I don’t do. I don’t do personal injury anymore. I don’t do bankruptcy. I’ve been doing this long enough that I can be pretty honest with these people. If there’s no hope, I tell them to go to trial. Murphy’s Law is in effect; sometimes it works."
Foley doesn’t want for clients, and says they could use four more attorneys in his area.
"People in Harbor are kind of territorial," he says. "Being the only visible attorney here has its advantages. People trust me because they voted for me."
Peter Pollaczek found that being the only lawyer in town, especially in a community whose culture was so different from where he had come from, was not living the dream, after all.
A 1973 graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, Pollaczek and his wife — both San Francisco natives — moved to Southern Oregon’s Douglas County in 1977.
"It was a time in our lives when we were interested in moving out to the country," says Pollaczek. "We built a rustic home on the South Umpqua River, 13 miles from Canyonville south of Roseburg. We’d only previously been there when we found the land there. We spent summers on the property during law school, but that was more like vacationing."
Pollaczek’s wife opened a deli in Canyonville; he had an office in what he describes as "one of the few two-story buildings in town."
"Canyonville hadn’t had a lawyer in quite some time," he says. "It seemed easy to get clients; that was one of the advantages (of being there). There was a curiosity, I’d say a slight skepticism, but people accepted me for what I was. I didn’t become part of the town culture, but I was accepted in town."
The main professional disadvantages, Pollaczek says, were being isolated from fellow practitioners and working with clients who had, he discovered, different expectations about lawyers.
"I had done little bits of law after law school, but I really started being a lawyer in Canyonville," he says. "Maybe ignorance is bliss — for a while. (But) there’s a value to having lawyer peers and being more able to share ideas with other lawyers. And in those days there was no Internet. I’d have to drive 35-40 minutes to Roseburg to get information on a case from the courthouse or do research. In Canyonville, I got advice and information from other lawyers I knew, but there was no local culture for it. I went to a couple of weeklong trial practice workshops, but I don’t remember any particular forum I had for getting peer support. I took it (the lack of peer support) for granted. That was my situation. I did my best."
In addition, says Pollaczek, he found that rural Southern Oregon "is a culture that’s less legally experienced" than the San Francisco Bay area from which he had come.
"People would want me to handle all sides of a transaction," he says. "I would have to explain why not, and they would still generally want me to do it. They think if you’re the lawyer, you should know how to do everything."
But in the end, it was not the professional isolation that caused Pollaczek and his family to move to Roseburg in 1984, as much as the physical and social isolation.
"Our property was beautiful, but personally we were very isolated, way out in the country," explains Pollaczek, who also had worked part-time in Roseburg in an office-share arrangement during his latter years in Canyonville, what he describes as "several testings of the waters."
"We were at the end of a long, old, wood bridge and a difficult road. At one point, the bridge fell in and left us stranded; we had to build a walking bridge and ferry stuff across. We had two kids born during the time we were in Canyonville, and one had a bad infection. It was very isolating for my wife, with no way to drive out, having kids upriver up a muddy, slippery road."
In addition, says Pollaczek, while there were "lots of nice people around, we came from a different culture. Rural culture was slow for us."
Pollaczek describes his experience of being the only lawyer in Canyonville as "both wonderful and challenging"
"It allowed me to do various kinds of law," says Pollaczek, who is retiring from his practice in Roseburg. "It was challenging to do a broad general practice: maybe less challenging then because law is more specialized now."
"There are some wonderful folks and values in the country," he continues. "It was nice to have had a different view, but it was a serious change for us. I think it would be more suitable for people who come out of that culture, like having lived on ranches. I don’t think I’d trade the experience of building a house and struggling against the elements. I feel like we’ve had a very enriching experience. But I’m happier in Roseburg."
Walter Hogan has exactly the kind of background that Pollaczek says is best suited to being the only lawyer in town.
Born across the street from his office in Myrtle Point — 15 miles inland from the Southern Oregon Coast — Hogan has lived there most of his life. A 1974 graduate of Willamette University College of Law, he’s had a solo practice there since 1981, doing mostly wills and trusts, business and general law.
"Nothing with schedules: criminal law, family law," says Hogan. "I’m too old for it and don’t have time for it. Everybody in this area is very busy. There’s a lot of work here."
Hogan, who goes home to make lunch for his wife on the two days that she works as a dental hygienist, estimates that he works 55 to 60 hours a week. He has two fulltime secretaries.
"There’s only 2,700 people in town, but you kind of have an emotional attachment to your clients, and they to their lawyer," he explains. "They will come to me when they wouldn’t come to Schwabe, maybe."
Hogan says he’s never questioned whether it feels odd to personally know virtually everyone he represents.
"I think people trust me to keep their secrets," he says. "I have no problem keeping confidences and secrets. My father used to say, ‘Never judge a man in gum boots’ (the Wellington boots often worn by fishermen and other working men) because you don’t know where they’ve been or what’s happened to them and their family in the past week.’"
"Very few (potential clients) go out of town," Hogan continues. "Some, with complex tax problems, I send out of town. Certainly I would not sue my next door neighbor. If I can’t take a case, I refer it out; it happens a couple of times a month. If I feel the least bit awkward, or there’s a remote possibility that when the case is done I can’t go to lunch with them, I don’t do it."
Hogan says that being the only lawyer in Myrtle Point is less isolating that it might be because "there’s a really good bar" — of the legal kind — in nearby Coos Bay. "I have no hesitation in calling any lawyer (there) and saying, ‘Here’s my issue,’ he says. "But it is isolating? Of course it is. Everything happens up in the valley."
Hogan, who says it takes him a minimum of two days to attend a CLE in Portland, says "It’s almost like Oregon has two bars: one for ‘real’ lawyers and one for people like us, just trying to serve our clients’ needs."
"We don’t try to do big cases," he says. "We don’t try to do complex cases. A small case is the biggest thing in a client’s life. Hopefully we don’t commit malpractice. We do the best we can."
A "real" lawyer, says Hogan, wouldn’t necessarily do well in his place.
"It’s probably not unique to small towns, but you have to fit in," he says. "You pull someone down from Portland, it’s not going to work well. The people I work with, I hunt with. You have to be on an equal par with them. You can’t be a three-piece suit lawyer; you’d be out of town in a month."
At that same time, Hogan says he wouldn’t be happy in a big firm in Portland, either.
"I’ve been to big firms for depositions and meetings," says Hogan. "I enjoyed my visits, but that’s not me. I’m here in short sleeves, and happy to be. If I’m in a suit, my clients wonder where I’ve been."
"I’ve never missed any of my kids’ ballgames or recitals," he goes on. "I have that freedom. A nice cushy firm in Portland tells you when you can go on vacation. I do work at home; I have clients who come to my house because we’re a small town. Yesterday a guy stopped me on the street as I got out of my car."
"This (being a lawyer) isn’t who I am," he sums up, "but it’s what I do. I wouldn’t trade it."
District Attorneys On Their Own
Chaffee, Foley, Pollaczek and Hogan all are, or have been, the only or nearly-only lawyer in town, all in private practice.
But in some rural Oregon county seats, the only lawyer in town is the district attorney. In fact, until recently, it was possible to be both the only private-practice attorney and the DA as well.
That’s because until last year, three Oregon DA positions — in Gilliam, Sherman and Wheeler counties — were considered to be only part-time positions and paid as such.
However, although the DAs were free to supplement their income from private practice, all had stopped doing so by the time the law was changed in 2007, mainly because of conflicts of interest.
Today, all of Oregon’s 36 DA positions are treated and paid as full time. But six counties still have only the DA with no deputies: Gilliam, Lake, Morrow, Sherman, Wallowa and Wheeler. And in at least two of these counties — Gilliam and Wheeler — the DA is the only lawyer, of any kind, who works in the county seat.
Like Walt Hogan, Gilliam County District Attorney Marion Weatherford acknowledges that working in the county seat of Condon — his home town — "had a little bit to do with my roots."
Weatherford had been gone 15 years, getting an MBA from Oregon State University, working for an international management consulting firm and graduating from Lewis & Clark Law School in 1996, before he returned and opened an office as Condon’s only attorney.
"To me, being an attorney is essentially a second career," says Weatherford. "If I had not been a little bit older (than most new lawyers), it would have been absolutely impossible. Even with that, I see the drawbacks of being a sole practitioner in general: not having colleagues there to discuss cases with, bounce ideas off of, share library expenses with. I think sole practitioners, in general, are at a significant disadvantage, even more so in a rural, small-population area. It’s a lot of work."
Unlike most small-town lawyers, Weatherford did no criminal defense. However, in 2001 he began working part-time as a deputy DA, and then was appointed DA when the DA resigned later that year.
Weatherford says he phased out his private practice by the end of the following year.
"By the time I became DA, Sherman and Wheeler counties’ DAs had ceased to have part-time private practices," says Weatherford. "I found (doing both) completely unwieldy in terms of conflicts of time and, sometimes, conflicts of defendants and clients."
Besides, Weatherford says, there’s plenty for him to do in a DA’s office that has only a fulltime legal assistant/office manager and a part-time employee who handles witnesses and victims’ assistance. There is no longer a deputy DA.
"My caseload doesn’t reflect the county’s (small) population because a lot of it comes from I-84," says Weatherford, noting that the interstate and other highways have produced such crimes as transportation of drugs and a road-rage attempted murder that he prosecuted earlier this year. "Probably 70 percent of my defendants don’t live in the county."
Still, with fewer than 2,000 people in the whole county, Weatherford acknowledges that "Pretty well everywhere I go I have contact with someone I’ve prosecuted or who’s been the victim of a crime."
Weatherford says he personally knows many of the witnesses who testify at his trials, and is likely to know the jurors as well. But he says he doesn’t see knowing the jurors as an advantage or disadvantage.
"It’s impossible to second-guess jurors’ pre-dispositions, even if you know them," he says. "Sometimes it’s harder if you know them. Sometimes not-guilty verdicts feel more personal if I knew the jurors, even though they’re not personal. But after the passage of time, I almost always see that the jury was right."
Tom Cutsforth is another local boy who — like Weatherford — returned home, did dual duty as the only private-practice attorney and only prosecutor in town and now, in the capacity of fulltime prosecutor, is still the only attorney. (Another attorney, Michelle Timko, also has a Fossil mailing address but practices across the line in Gilliam County.)
"I was born and raised on a ranch 72 miles from here, in Morrow County," says Cutsforth, who graduated from the University of Oregon School of Law in 1988; was a deputy DA in Union County for two years and then was appointed to fill the DA vacancy in Wheeler County. "I can’t work in Morrow County: I’m related to everybody in Morrow County."
Cutsforth says he shut down his concomitant part-time private practice in 2000, even though it was still allowed by law and he only was being paid as a part-time DA.
"The conflicts were just incredible," he explains. "I did family law. I’d represent one party: the woman, the man, whoever came in first. When we’d get into custody, there would usually be an allegation of abuse, then an application for a restraining order. Who prosecutes abuse? Who does restraining orders? So it was problematic. I would have to swap with other local DAs (who didn’t have conflicts). It just wasn’t worth it."
Not only that, says Cutsforth, "I wasn’t making the money I needed, because people here don’t have any money. If you’re going to try private practice, you’re not going to make any money. You’d starve." (The per capita income in Wheeler County in 2000, the last year for which census data is available, was $19,736, versus $28,792 for the state overall.)
Now, says Cutsforth, "There are no other attorneys, period, in Fossil." Most trial attorneys come from The Dalles, Madras and Hood River, although he says that some criminal defendants who can afford it retain counsel from Portland.
Cutsforth, who works out of a 1901 three-story brick courthouse with a castle-style turret, implies that those defendants don’t necessarily get value for their money.
"I don’t go to trial that often," says Cutsforth, who has a three-quarters-time secretary and a three-quarters-time victims’ assistant. "Initially I had a lot of trials, but defense attorneys found out I’m pretty good at what I do. They’ll test you."
Also, he says, "I know most of the jurors. I say, "If I prove my case can you find the defendant guilty?" and they all nod their heads. That’s good enough for me. It’s great fun. People from out of town, they have no idea."
Cutsforth says that the defendants he prosecutes are, like the lawyers who defend them, "pretty much non-local."
"We do have some local troublemakers," he says, "but they tend to be transients. People come in here thinking we don’t have law enforcement or there’s not serious scrutiny. It’s just not the case. Everybody’s looking at you (in a small town)."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben has been a member of the Oregon State Bar since 1980. She is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2008 Janine Robben