This is the second in a series of stories examining — from the perspective of practicing lawyers — conditions and opportunities in non-urban parts of the state for attorneys who are just starting out or those who want a change of pace. This installment features impressions gathered from several towns in the central part of Eastern Oregon, which the author visited on a trip that began at the airport in Boise, Idaho.
Driving west on Interstate 84 from the Boise airport, the suburbs fall away and the landscape opens up. The first sign that something is different here: “Speed Limit 80.” It takes less than an hour to reach the Oregon border and the city of Ontario, largest in Malheur County with a population of about 30,000. Nyssa is a few miles south and Vale, the county seat, is 15 miles west. Malheur County has a rich history, which you can learn about at the Four Rivers Cultural Center and Museum. The center celebrates the diverse people — Native American, Basque, European, Hispanic and Japanese — who have made this region their home. Today about 30 percent of the population is Hispanic, and there is still a strong Japanese-American community remaining from the World War II era, when Japanese-Americans were offered the option of working on farms in the area as an alternative to internment camps. The cultural center is also a hub for the arts, including visits from the Oregon Symphony and local theatrical productions. The culture here is different from what you will find in the Willamette Valley, and so are the lawyers who practice here.
When Gary Kiyuna applied for a job with a law firm in Nyssa he didn’t have a clear idea of where it was. That was in 1982, before the Internet made the world smaller. Also, he was relatively new to Oregon, having been born and raised in “territorial Hawaii” and attending law school in Indiana. His wife, however, was a native Oregonian and wanted to return home. Now after more than 30 years in Nyssa, Kiyuna can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I like the vastness of it. I like the solitude. And there’s terrific fishing.” His practice focuses on criminal defense, as well as juvenile dependency and disability law. His work takes him to Boise frequently and to Baker City a few days a week — the new car he bought last year already has 31,000 miles on it. Still, he loves his work and has no immediate plans to retire. He is, however, increasingly concerned about the “graying” of the local bar. Some firms here that have served the same families and businesses for generations are finding it difficult to attract — and more importantly, keep — young lawyers.
Dustin Martinsen and Janae Bly, both of whom were admitted to the OSB in 2014, are new to Malheur County. Martinsen is an associate at Butler & Looney (now celebrating its 80th anniversary) in Vale, where he practices “a little bit of everything.” He enjoys his work, his mentors and colleagues. His firm has brought in young lawyers before that haven’t worked out long term. When asked how long he thinks he will stay, Martinsen replies, “probably until the day I die.” It helps that he prefers rural life (he grew up in Idaho) and has strong local ties: his wife is from the area, and her family is close with one of the firm’s partners, Bob Butler. Butler guided Martinsen through a series of clerkships and internships to make sure he had been exposed to a variety of practice types and settings before committing to the firm. Once he did commit, “they gave me an office, I closed the door and studied for the bar.” Since then he has worked on a wide variety of legal issues, learning the ropes from each of his firm’s partners, each of whom concentrates in a different area of law. Lawyers out here need to be ready for anything, including associating with an outside firm when necessary. Martinsen also appreciates the balance between professional and personal interests his practice allows. He lives within a half mile of both the Snake and Owyhee rivers, and he and his wife have become part of a group of young couples that gets together regularly and takes advantage of all the recreational opportunities in the area.
Less than a block from Butler & Looney is the Zanotelli Law Office, where Janae Bly began working in January. She is a transplant from the Willamette Valley who was open to change for the right opportunity. She found it with Brian Zanotelli, whom she calls a fantastic mentor. “I have a feeling that if I went to a larger firm I might be kind of lost, on my own with no real guidance.” She appreciates that they work as a team to operate a full-service law firm, which is pretty much a requirement for small town practice. That said, some rural clients are more sophisticated than a city dweller might expect, including those with mineral rights and gas and oil holdings. Bly loves the variety her practice brings and the convenience of a practically nonexistent commute. She was able to rent a house right in Vale, and her husband and three children have adjusted well. The main drawback is missing the rest of her family. She is trying to convince them to move east, but jobs can be hard to find. The Snake River Correctional Institution is a major employer, but many other jobs are agricultural and seasonal. On the plus side, “Everyone is so friendly. That is probably the number one surprise. You know, coming from Western Oregon, people are friendly there too but in a different way.”
Heading north on I-84 the landscape changes to shades of tan and golden brown. It would make a great set for a post-apocalyptic adventure film. To make the scene stranger, about 25 miles in, the time zone changes to Pacific. After about 70 total miles the road dips town into the valley that holds Baker City. Now there are trees, greenery and historic buildings, including the landmark Geiser Grand Hotel. All the shops are decked out for fall, with scarecrows, pumpkins and colored leaves. The people here are proud of their town, and it shows. Drew Martin shares that pride, citing a cooperative business community and strong schools that are “the heart of the community.” Martin grew up in nearby North Powder, where he and his three brothers worked on the family ranch. After graduating from Washington State University, he worked for Sen. Gordon Smith in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at Willamette University School of Law. Rather than looking for clerkships during the summer he came home and worked on his grandfather’s ranch. But in a small town, maybe more than anywhere else, a single connection can make all the difference. Martin’s grandfather was a client of prominent local lawyer Cliff Bentz of Yturri Rose, the largest law firm in Eastern Oregon. Martin joined the firm at its main Ontario office, then opened its Baker City branch in 2012. His practice focuses on agricultural law, real estate and land use. He loves being near his extended family and raising his own children on the small farm he and his wife manage. Martin recommends the area for any lawyer interested in a good work/life balance and access to outdoor activities. Plus, the town offers a first-run movie theater, a bowling alley and “lots of festivals, especially in the summer.”
Around the corner from Yturri Rose is the law office of Bob Whitnah, another local. He served in the U.S. Army, later owned a Baker City restaurant that was mentioned favorably in the New York Times, then built houses until a particularly cold winter convinced him that an indoor job might be a good idea. He thought about following his father’s footsteps and becoming a dentist until he realized you needed to be good at math. The LSAT practice test seemed much easier, so he took it and sent out his applications. After a year at Oklahoma City University Law School he transferred to the University of Oregon. To get his chance at a job back home Whitnah had a plan. He began cold-calling the D.A. every couple of months just to check in and ask questions. By his third year the calls came every month. After he graduated, and while preparing to take the bar, he called every week. Somehow that worked, and Whitnah was a deputy D.A. for four and a half years. In 2006 he started his own practice. He says, “The difference between practicing in a small town and a big city is that in a small town you can’t mess up.” Because everyone will know, and a damaged reputation will follow you. He values that his practice offers “maximum flexibility,” which is especially important given recent developments in his firm.
Krischele Hampton hoped to be a prosecutor when she was admitted to the bar in 2006. After few leads on that front, she attended an OCDLA conference and decided the defense bar would be a good fit. Setting up her own practice was daunting, but Whitnah, whom she had met previously in the courthouse, heard through a mutual acquaintance that she was looking for office space. Whitnah & Hampton was a success both professionally and personally, and the two married in 2009. Krischele Whitnah now practices primarily from the couple’s home in Richland, where she is also taking care of 8-month-old twin boys.
Richland is near the Idaho border, about 40 miles east of Baker City along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. The route passes the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center but requires no stops until a quarter mile from the Whitnah home — once to let a cow meander across the road, next to wait for a pheasant to prove its dominance over a cat.
Krischele spent her first year of law school at Baylor in Texas, then (like Bob, earlier) transferred to the U of O. She always intended to return to Richland, where she grew up and most of her family still lives. One of her first clients hired her for a million-dollar contract dispute involving the purchase of hay. She and Bob handled it together, and their representation included a successful stakeout to catch the opposing party violating an injunction. Although she enjoyed a varied practice, she now focuses on family law. Bob loves trial work, and along with his own caseload handles any of Krischele’s divorce cases that go to trial. Both are committed to rural practice, which Krischele notes is much easier with the Internet. Amazon Prime almost always delivers in two days, and in her practice she appreciates CLEs via live webcast and BarBooks, which was her “secret weapon” when starting out. Challenges include finding specialized medical care and keeping good support staff, who are often tempted to leave for public-sector jobs with better benefits. But she is near her family, lives in a home she loves, and is able to continue practicing while raising her family. Bob has a bit of a commute but loves to drive, and goes into their Baker City office five days a week.
Both Yturri Rose and the Whitnah law offices are around the corner from the historic Baker County Courthouse. The courthouse is home to a number of government offices, including the Baker County District Attorney. New to the office this year is Deputy D.A. Emily La Brecque, who was admitted to the OSB in 2014. She and her fiancé, an accountant, were living in Portland when she decided to give up contract work and try for a position as a prosecutor. She wanted to do trial work, and that seemed like the most likely option. Of all the places she applied, Baker City was the farthest from home. She made the trip anyway, coming a day early to get a feel for the town, and liked what she saw. She was offered the position and started in January of this year.
La Brecque’s biggest initial concern was being separated from her fiancé. As it turned out, another employee at the D.A.’s office knew someone at a local accounting firm who might be hiring, and the referral worked out. A second potential obstacle, the scarcity of available rental housing in the area, also worked to her advantage: because housing costs are so much lower than in Portland, the couple was able to buy. And the job is even better than she had hoped, especially the mentoring and training opportunities. She has handled theft cases, juvenile dependency and is now working on felonies — all in her first year of practice.
A few aspects of rural life have been challenging for La Brecque, who has lived in several states but only came to Oregon for law school and had never previously been to Eastern Oregon. For one, “The nearest dry cleaner is 50 miles away. But I’ve learned that you can buy washable suits.” The Internet service is comparatively slow, and living three hours away from the nearest airport can be inconvenient. She recently joined the ski patrol in hopes of meeting more young people while also performing a valuable community service. Still, the upsides of small town life are numerous. Like that there’s skiing a half-hour away, and lift tickets are cheap. The local YMCA has a great gym, including offerings such as PiYo and Aqua Zumba. Also, she notes, “I could walk to work if I wanted to. I can go home for lunch.” Another welcome change to which she’s still adjusting is the ready availability of free, convenient parking: “I still find myself pulling into the first available spot, even though there’s almost always something closer.”
An hour and a half southwest of Baker City are John Day and Canyon City. John Day’s population is larger at 1,700 but neighboring Canyon City, with about 700 residents, is the county seat. John Days is home to the extraordinary Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum and close to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It also has several restaurants, including the excellent 1188 Brewpub (vegan and gluten-free options available), which on a quiet Tuesday evening was populated mostly by exceptionally attractive and vivacious women. As it turns out, some of them work at the district attorney’s office.
Matt Ipson is the county’s newest (and only) deputy D.A. He also first came to Oregon for law school. He was clerking for a circuit court judge in Eugene when he saw a job posting for a deputy D.A. in Canyon City. He jumped at the chance, with the full support of his wife, a teacher who prefers small-town life. When they first arrived Ipson’s job had an expiration date and his wife worked as a substitute. Now she has a regular teaching position, and the federal grant that funds Ipson’s position has been renewed. The grant addresses special issues surrounding domestic violence in rural areas: Responses to 911 calls can take an hour or more depending on location, cell reception is often poor, treatment options for offenders are scarce, and shelters for victims may be nonexistent. Within a few weeks of Ipson’s arrival he was “going to grand jury on felony charges. It was great… and a little shocking at first.” It was also an adjustment to see how little security was in the courthouse, and what it’s like to practice in a jurisdiction with only one judge — one shared with another county, at that. One of the first trials Ipson had was for a theft at the local grocery store. For some reason, conflict or timing, there was a visiting judge, and “he asked some general questions of those potential jurors, and one of the questions he asked was have any of you ever shopped at Chester’s Thriftway. Every hand went up.” That happens when there’s only one grocery store in town. Despite less convenient shopping and the lack of major entertainment options, Ipson is happy with his choice. “This job just provides really great work/life balance, and when I leave the office I’m able to really leave the office and go enjoy the beautiful area that is just in our backyard… to be able to go up into the mountains, to go camping, go hiking, go to a lake — and it’s all right there; you can do it after work.”
When legendary local lawyer Markku Saario retired, former associate Rob Raschio moved back to Canyon City from The Dalles to take over his practice. Now he is single-handedly increasing the population of young lawyers in Eastern Oregon. Raschio serves on the OSB Professional Liability Fund’s board of directors, and is a past president of OCDLA, so he has heard a lot about the graying of the bar and especially the need for criminal defense lawyers. When he first learned about a young lawyer in New York who might want to relocate to Eastern Oregon he was skeptical. “I called him and talked with him. He impressed me. I told him to watch “Northern Exposure” and we could talk again. It’s just like that without the moose.” He didn’t expect the lead to pan out, but it did. Then, his wife told him about a young lawyer working as a legal assistant who wanted to settle in the area as well. Raschio wanted to hire both but couldn’t afford two salaries. “At the end of the day I asked public defense services, I said look this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’ve got two lawyers who want to come out here, can you help me find some funds? Nancy Cozine was very helpful, and we made it happen. The Office of Public Defense Services put their money where their mouth is — they don’t get a lot of credit for that and they should.”
Both new lawyers joined the firm last year. Tim Beaubien, who grew up mostly in Burns, went to Notre Dame for both undergrad and law school. “I thought I’d end up doing business law, probate, estate planning… I’m the kind of guy who actually thought tax law would be interesting.” He had an internship with a public defender’s office in Idaho and was surprised to find himself interested in that as well, although the case management process was frustrating. He now finds criminal defense very rewarding, largely because he can help people, and he also enjoys his new community. “You can’t beat the location, you can’t beat the cost of living.” Asked what it would take for a city-type to fit in, he replied, “If you’re willing to adapt, be a little more self reliant, you should like it. I’d say the biggest thing is you need a car and need to get used to driving. You can’t bike to Harney County and make it to court on time.”
Jonathan Bartov practiced commercial litigation in New York City, and also went to law school there. He’s originally from Texas, however, and as an undergraduate at UT he became close friends with fellow student Riccola Voigt, who grew up in Grant County and now practices law in Burns. The two remained friends throughout separate law school experiences, and Bartov came out to visit her four times — it was his annual vacation. “Four-wheeling, horseback riding, camping, fishing. I always had a really good time. It was nice to get away from the city.” Disenchanted with life and law practice in New York, he was ready for a change. After convincing Raschio he was serious, Bartov took the plunge. He found it a little hard to adjust at first and also was slow to find a place of his own to live. “I was tired of apartments.” He found that what worked in other places — newspaper ads, Craig’s List — did not get results out here. Turning to word-of-mouth, he found an affordable small house outside of Prairie City. “Two nights ago I was standing in my kitchen, doing dishes and I heard something. I thought, there’s something out there. It took me a minute to pinpoint what I was hearing — it was an elk.” He loves his house, has made good friends from all walks of life, and is looking forward to having his fiancée follow him from New York when she finishes law school. He also enjoys criminal defense, especially how quickly many cases resolve. “I like working with people that you can actually sit down and talk to and build a rapport. They’re very appreciative, which is not something that happens often in civil litigation.”
When asked what he misses most about city life, Bartov gives an immediate response: “The food. If you want dim sum or sushi or Thai food you’re going to have to travel.” Dry cleaning is also an issue here, but “whenever we go out of town we pack our suits and take them to a 24-hour dry cleaner,” says Raschio. Bartov travels a lot as well, but sounds like a real local when he explains, “It’s a lot of driving but when you live out here you get used to that.”
Raschio warns that dawn and dusk are prime times for animal movement so the road south can be dangerous. He leaves, and a few moments later a deer strolls across the grounds of the Grant County Courthouse, crosses the main road and climbs a steep hill.
The 70-mile drive from Canyon City to Burns passes from forest to rangeland and back again. No additional wildlife appears but the scars of the past summer’s devastating wildfires are impossible to miss. Closer to Burns the land is dominated by sage brush and the news by sage grouse conservation.
The towns of Burns and Hines together hold about 4,400 people, comprising about 60 percent of the population of Harney County, which by area is Oregon’s largest and the 9th largest county in the U.S. At the county courthouse in Burns, Deputy D.A. Joe Lucas has spent the last four years gaining practice experience and embracing rural life. Born and raised in Hillsboro, he was a wrestler at the University of Oregon, earned his law degree at Willamette and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in public policy online from Walden University. He hopes it will make him be a better public servant, and specifically a better district attorney. With the announced retirement of D.A. Tim Colahan, Lucas has filed for the elected position.
Lucas always wanted to be a prosecutor and believed he could have more of an impact in a small town. His life goal, which he attributes to his faith, is to promote the common good to the greatest extent possible. He thinks that serving as a prosecutor in a rural community can fulfill that mission. He also enjoys the personal benefits. “The folks in Harney County are very friendly and welcoming, and I am fortunate to know a great many people from many walks of life just by living here.” He enjoys working with others in law enforcement, and he has gotten involved in the community as coach of the high school wrestling team. Like others in rural Oregon, he says you can’t go to the grocery store without meeting a few people you know. (But unlike John Day, Burns has two grocery stores and at least one is open until 11 p.m. You can also get Thai food here.) The only thing he really misses from “the valley” is family — his is in Hillsboro, and his in-laws live in Canby. Lucas and his wife have two children, ages 2 and 1, but still manage to visit their relatives fairly often, and are committed to raising their family here.
It’s 130 miles from Burns back to Ontario. Once again, the scenery is glorious and signs of human habitation sparse. After visiting the smaller towns, Ontario seems large and sprawling and not entirely charming, at least once you venture away from the downtown core. The offices of the Oregon Law Center are in an industrial area; still, the parking is easy and free.
Walter Fonseca joined the two-lawyer office in 2014. Originally from Hampton, Va., Fonseca chose to attend law school at Lewis & Clark because he was interested in the Pacific Northwest. He liked the idea of being near mountains and —at least compared to his East Coast options — a “proximity to nothingness.” He also knew he wanted to practice public interest law, so after graduation and his admission to the bar, had no hesitation about applying for a position in an area he had never even visited.
With no friends or family in the area, Fonseca found it hard to adjust at first. But he has found the local residents to be very welcoming, and he sees many benefits in small-town practice. “You’re going to get into court a lot, you’re going to get to know the other attorneys quickly. You’re going to get to see the effects of your cases first-hand, and you’re going to get to know your clients well. You’re going to have a lot of autonomy.” He also appreciates the many opportunities for community involvement and the variety of his legal work, especially on farm worker issues. With its sizable Hispanic population, Ontario could benefit from one or more attorneys who are bilingual — Fonseca had hoped to learn Spanish but has had little time to spare. Recently the managing attorney left for a job with the OSB in Tigard; his replacement was expected to arrive in November… from Chicago
Aside from his work, Fonseca cites many things he likes about living in Ontario: “That it’s quiet. That I run into people I know pretty much wherever I go. I like the options for biking, backpacking, hiking — the outdoors. And I like the variety of landscapes, from city to desert to forest.” Housing is cheaper than in Portland, but rentals are hard to find and can be more expensive than you would expect. Gas (because of long-distance driving) and groceries tend to be more expensive with a few exceptions. Fonseca says one surprising benefit to living in the area is “the amount of onions I have gleaned from the roadside – they just fall off the truck, and they’re still good.” He can’t say the same for the tap water: “I’m getting used to the flavor of the water here, but in my opinion water shouldn’t have a flavor.”
Asked about political differences from the Willamette Valley, Fonseca replies: “It is a conservative part of the state. There’s frustration with the political process and perceived corruption, and I think that’s true pretty much everywhere. But I think liberals can be quite comfortable in Ontario. In Portland, there are a lot of people trying to do the same things. Out here you don’t have that, and there’s a need for it — for people who are pushing for progressive change. There are people out here doing that; there’s a tight-knit community of progressives out here.”
From Fonseca’s perspective, the area could also use more lawyers handling landlord/tenant, family law, domestic violence and plaintiff’s litigation. There have also been recent openings in the district attorney’s office. He thinks young lawyers might be surprised at how much the area has to offer, both personally and professionally. “I think if you can practice law in a rural area you can practice law anywhere.”
The drive back to Boise is uneventful. The suburbs and shopping malls look just like suburbs and shopping malls anywhere. Even “Speed Limit 80” doesn’t seem so great — what’s the rush? Passing through security at the Boise airport takes almost no time at all. The flight to Portland leaves at 5 and, with the time change, arrives at 5:30. Not so far after all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kay Pulju is the bar’s Director of Communications & Public Services. Originally from the east coast, she attended law school in Minnesota and was admitted to the OSB in 1991. She is currently pondering relocating to Baker City. Or maybe John Day. Or Vale.
© 2015 Kay Pulju