Larry is widely recognized by his peers for his exceptional achievements in the legal profession. Larry reflects on his years of law practice as a solo and small firm attorney in the following paper, which he wrote and first presented at a 2011 Urgent Legal Matters Seminar and which he again presented at a State Bar of Georgia 2012 Solo and Small Firm Seminar. The original version has been edited for publication on this blog.   

Trials (Maybe Not the Kind You’re Thinking About) Growing out of Practicing Law in a Small Town

by Larry Walker

Many years ago, perhaps when I was a 49 year old lawyer and not [72], as I am today, I participated in a program at the University of Georgia Law School. As I recall it, the program featured an attorney from A Large Law Firm, one from A Medium-Sized Law Firm, and one from A Small Law Firm. When my turn came, I was introduced as “Larry Walker, who has a small law practice.” Perhaps pride more than the introducer’s lack of truth compelled me to respond: “I have a small law firm, but not necessarily a small practice.” I might not have even included the word “necessarily”.

And so, I come to you, today, to talk about the trials, and the sometimes immense satisfactions, of being an active lawyer in a small town. Those of you who practice in a town of 10,000 souls, or less, or have ever had such a practice, will understand. Those who immediately left law school and went, as a young lawyer, to Atlanta or some other large city, just don’t know what you’ve missed. In the next few minutes, let me talk to you about practicing law, first as a sole practitioner and now with seven other great lawyers and fine people, in a small town – in my case, Perry, Georgia.

I was 23 years old when I returned home fresh from UGA Law School, ready to right wrongs, help the less-fortunate, and make my mark in my small world in Middle Georgia. It was June, 1965, and during that month, I graduated from law school, found out that I had passed the bar exam, took a job (my first, other than mowing lawns, packing peaches, selling boiled peanuts, picking cotton, working in a feed store and a men’s clothing store, working in a Texas steel mill, etc.), and along with my wife, Janice, had my first child, Larry Walker, III. Yes, June 1965 was a really big month for this little Walker family.

I looked it up for this paper. After renting it for about six months, I bought from a local bank the building I was occupying: the price was $5,000.00. It had a small restroom, a small reception area which my “half-day, five days a week, receptionist/secretary occupied,” and my small office. The total of all of it was 28.33 feet by 18.5 feet. Parking was on the street. I paid $1,000.00 down and financed $4,000.00. Mr. Tuggle, the bank’s Vice-President, wanted my father to guarantee or co-sign the note, but my father, who was also a Director of this same bank, forcefully refused. Mr. Tuggle let me have the money without Daddy’s signature. I paid it back! This is the way that small town banks used to operate, before our country went broke. Generally, the only people who could borrow money were those who didn’t need to borrow and even then you needed about five times collateral to debt to get the money!

And, there was my shingle with the words “Larry C. Walker, Jr., Attorney At Law” on it. But, it’s not the office or the shingle that I remember most. What I remember most was the excitement and nervousness – excited about helping others and nervous about how I would do. Often, I felt that the client knew more about what they were talking about than I did (I was probably right), and that I was getting ready to charge them (the hardest thing for this young lawyer to do) pretty good money for my advice and efforts. Was it really worth what I was charging?

Again, I looked it up: my first two files (I still have all of my files, and our firm has all of its files). My first real property file resulted in a certificate of title on a lot 90 feet by 35 feet minus 0.27 acres taken in a right-of-way deed by the Georgia Department of Transportation. I probably was paid $35.00 for this work. My client’s estate still has this tract of land. It’s hard to sell a tract 90 feet by 35 feet minus 0.27 acres unless you want to put a bowling alley on it!

My first non- real property file was a dispute that a local furniture dealer had with Graybar Electric, Inc., the manufacturer of Zenith Products. He wanted me to sue Graybar Electric. Can you imagine a 23 year old lawyer, about 30 days out of law school, suing this corporate behemoth? We didn’t, and despite some research and correspondence and other efforts, I never billed for my services. My client did give my wife and me a very small cedar box that we still have, and I ultimately handled, about forty years later, the estates of both of my first two clients.

Yes, I remember the nervousness and the excitement, but I also remember their faces. Faces of people who had little hope and what little they had, they had placed with me. And, I remember their faces when I was successful for them. It was like they had never had anyone to fight for them, before, much less with their ending up on the top. Likely, they had never prevailed in a significant dispute before. I miss that very much. The kind of folks I generally represent today, (there are exceptions that I will expound upon), pay well and expect “to end up on top.” And, if they don’t, they’ll find someone else to represent them. Yes, I remember the faces from the past, and I miss how I felt when I helped these good people.

She was old and black in a time and place when being old or black, and especially both, was not a helpful thing when there were legal disputes. She had borrowed money from a small loan company and, despite that she had been making payments for years, was about to lose her house. As far as she and I could tell (and it was very difficult to figure), she was a little behind on her payments, but had paid back about twice what she had borrowed years before. I was her last hope and wanted to help, but saw little I could do until I went to the Houston County Courthouse and read the loan company’s deed to secure debt – a deed to secure debt that they had prepared without the help of a lawyer. The company had used a proper security deed form, but copied the legal description from a prior warranty deed, verbatim, onto their instrument, which was signed by my client, the grantor in their instrument. These were the words in addition to the legal description in which they also included: “Grantor, herein, reserves a life estate in and to the above described property.” I wanted to shout when I saw these words and would have done so, except for the absolute decorum, at all times, required by the Clerk and Deputy Clerk in the Houston County record room. I worked it out with the company and my grateful client kept her home. It wasn’t an Atticus Finch moment, but it was pretty good, pretty doggone good! Again, I remember, and will never forget, my client’s face when I told her she could stay in “her home” until she died. She did.

Murder was the charge in a day before spousal abuse counted for much, if anything. It was July 4, and my Waffle House waitress client shot her husband, who she contended was abusing her, through the heart. As they say, he was “graveyard dead when he hit the floor.” We argued “abuse” to the jury and that “the pistol accidentally cocked and fired during a struggle.” The District Attorney argued that the pistol could not accidentally cock as he “fanned” it during his closing to the jury when, suddenly, it cocked. You could have heard a pin drop when this happened. The jury convicted my client of involuntary manslaughter, and she was sentenced to five years and served a little more than two. I felt like a real lawyer. It’s a feeling that’s harder to get with what I do now.

Then, there is the City of Perry that we have successfully and happily represented for [41] years, after I served for six years as its Municipal Court Judge beginning at age 23, and, the City of Hawkinsville. And, my high school teacher who called and wanted me to help him get back $6.00 or $7.00 for a magazine he subscribed to and never got. And the man who wanted my opinion as to what he could do about his neighbor’s cat walking on his car. And, our representation of Ray Goff when he was terminated as the University of Georgia’s head football coach (the most interesting representation I ever had). Frito-Lay, Heileman Brewery, Tolleson Lumber, and the Houston County Hospital Authority have been long-time clients. In a small town, you get the big, sometimes the very big, the small, and sometimes the very small, and maybe all on the same day.

We represented The Boston Globe in a precedent-setting case, and we have for years represented the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association and the Georgia Beer Wholesalers. We’ve had years in which we probably closed $300,000,000 in loans, but saw loan closings virtually stop in September 2007. Practice in the area of loans, contracts, leases, formations of limited liability companies and corporations, etc., is somewhat better than in September, 2007, 2008 and 2009, but it’s still nowhere near where it used to be. Consequently, [in 2011] I had two cases pending in Magistrate’s Court (one is in Walton County), which will be the first cases I have ever tried in Magistrate’s Court, and I’m a 69 year old lawyer with 46 years of experience.

You sue ´em, and you see ´em at church or the post office and at the grocery store. That probably seldom, if ever, happens to attorneys with King and Spalding or Troutman Sanders in Atlanta. Well, at least it keeps you alert and on your toes.

I’ve had two “land-line cases” where the parties were carrying guns.  I’ve had a man to call that he was coming to our office to see me in a case where I was representing his wife and that resulted in our entire staff being cloistered in the library and the police coming. Fortunately, there was not a shooting. Recently, we had a much older man to come to the office barefooted and in what appeared to be his underwear. He was highly agitated. We were highly nervous. And, so it goes in an active, small town law practice.

Mix a law practice with politics (I served in the State Legislature for 32 years), and it really gets interesting.

Involvement in the political arena adds an additional dimension to a small town law practice. I know. They come to see you and let’s say they have a “driver’s license problem.” Are they talking to you as an attorney or as a legislator? I always came down on the side that they were coming to see me as a legislator, but often it evolved into much beyond my legislation responsibilities. Still, I always handled the problem “as a legislator.” It probably cost me money, and often I felt that I got taken advantage of. Still, I think my decisions about not charging for my “services” were the correct ones. In fact, I know they were.

Then, there are those who start off by telling you, “I’ve always supported and voted for you” before trying to get you to do something for them. Several of them who told me some form of this never lived in any district I represented, and I’ve told more than one of them that “I’m surprised that you didn’t get locked up, as it’s against the law to vote outside the district you live in, and I never ran in the district where you live.”

Double-first cousins to the “I’ve always voted for you crowd” are the “I’ve always been a friend of your family crowd,” as if we don’t know who our friends have been throughout the years. It’s hard to turn ’em down, even when you can’t make any money doing what they want you to do for them, whether they were real friends or just friends for expediency.

There is nothing like an active, small town law practice. I’ve loved it for now going into my 47th year. I wouldn’t take anything for what I’ve done. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m still enjoying it.

[Five] years ago, Janice and I built a new house about five miles out of Perry. It’s on a tract of land that had three fishing ponds on it when we bought it. We’ve built another one and now have four ponds. I can leave my office and be fishing or on the tractor mowing in about twenty minutes. It’s three or four minutes to the laundry and about the same amount of time to the bank or restaurants. We have four children and [ten] grandchildren. Two of my grandchildren played high school football last night.  All of my children, my active, sharp, [94]-year old mother, two brothers and a sister, two aunts, cousins, and many, many nieces, nephews and great nieces and nephews live within fifteen miles of where we live.

No, I wouldn’t swap my small town practice and my small town life. The money may be better somewhere else, but it’s been mighty good to my family and me in Perry, Georgia. And, my practice has changed as it has grown throughout the years.

He was about five feet four inches and weighed about 240 pounds. I used to do legal work for him, and he would stand in front of my desk. He never sat. One day, he said to me: “Mr. Walker, I’ve got the highest accommodations in you.” I knew exactly what he meant. I was always very appreciative of his words. I’m glad he thought I could get the job done for him. If you practice in a small town, you understand. I haven’t heard anything like what he said to me in many years. I miss it. I guess that small town practice is not like it used to be. I don’t guess it will ever be the way it used to be, again. That’s a shame. And, if it is gone, I’ll still remember his face and that of the lady pursued by the small loan company. Those were the days when I felt like a real lawyer. The memory of his words is good. I wish someone, today, would express “highest accommodations in me.”