Local or out-of-town attorney?

When businesses need attorneys to assist on either day-to-day matters (e.g. labor and employment issues) or once-in-a-lifetime matters (e.g. selling the business), the business will need to choose whether to engage and rely upon local counsel or seek the services of an attorney located in a larger metropolitan area. Generally, the business should seek local representation. 

I will first dispense with (at least some) of the obvious bias. Though I am a local attorney, I am no longer engaged in the active practice of law…for the most part. I am not seeking to represent any local business. Bias may still exist but is somewhat mitigated by this perspective. 

I was previously an attorney with the Kennewick law firm of Leavy Schultz Davis. At the time, I was an active member of the local bar association and our law firm sought representation on a matter that required an outside attorney’s assistance, we chose to engage a local attorney. 

In my current capacity, I have the occasion to assist clients in finding competent attorney representation. In the vast majority of cases, I refer to local attorneys. 

Why do I continue to turn to local counsel when there are arguably more specialized attorneys elsewhere?

An attorney located in a larger metropolitan area (“Big City Lawyer”) may have greater expertise in the area of law in which his or her assistance is sought. However, I think the Big City Lawyer often fails in several regards. First, the Big City Lawyer often doesn’t know or get to know the business. Second, the Big City Lawyer charges hourly rates that can easily be double the rates charged by local attorneys (if you can even imagine it to be possible). And, somehow, even though arguably more of an expert on the matter, the time spent—somehow—is greater than the time spent on the same matter by a local attorney. For example, a local attorney may charge $300/hour to complete project X and do so in 4 hours. In my experience, I often see the Big City Lawyer touted as the expert complete the same project at $500/hour in 7 hours plus charge for paralegal time at $250 an hour for a complete project costing triple or quadruple the local attorney charge. One would expect the expert to spend less time and with that time saved make up the difference in hourly rates. In my experience, such is not often the case.

Undoubtedly, it can be difficult for any person to find the right attorney. Attorneys practice in specialized fields and it can be hard to find the specific skills you seek. 

And, once found, the consumer must then hope the attorney possesses reasonably good and fair business skills (e.g. reasonably responsive, charging reasonable rates, providing reasonable expectations for scope of work,  regular billing, and timely completion). Combined, the search can be difficult. But, such is the case with any professional, in town or out.

Local attorneys have more familiarity with local counsel (that they may be opposing on the matter), they have more familiarity with the judges (that may be deciding the case), and they have more familiarity with the local court rules. Local attorneys also will not normally need to charge travel fees and costs to perform the work necessary for the project. All of these realities bode well for choosing local. 

With many areas of the law, some amount of training might be necessary. For example, even though an attorney has practiced in agricultural law and contracts, your business may sell soybeans to China. And, that local attorney has never drafted an international sales contract for the purchase of soybeans. There would likely be industry norms and practices that the client would need to convey to the attorney (i.e. teach the attorney the industry). But, I think it unlikely that the client would be able to find an attorney trained in that same area in Spokane. And, if there was one in Seattle, the search would be incredibly difficult given the more than 13,000 attorneys licensed to practice law in King County according to the Washington State Bar Association. With the lower fees and ease of access, I would prefer to establish a long term relationship with the local attorney and share with him or her the industry and grow together. 

There are times when the Big City Lawyer is helpful. Regrettably, we have a deficit of talent in select areas of the law. For example, if you have a patent idea from your experience in biological engineering, you might have trouble finding a suitable local patent attorney (though there is at least one practicing patent attorney locally). So, in some cases, the legal specialty is woefully underrepresented locally. Such is the exception and not the rule. 

If you are seeking an attorney, ask people you know–especially attorneys–whom they might recommend. For example, if you know a divorce attorney or criminal attorney, ask who they regard in the field of business law or labor or whatever your needs. Get input from several attorneys. But my advice is to try local first.


 * Licensed, not practicing.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or entity. This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax or legal advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific situation with a qualified tax or legal advisor. 

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