Although I grew up and was educated mostly in Seattle, I have lived and practiced the past 22 years in Bellingham, the 12th-largest city in Washington. People talk a lot about big cities and small towns, but I’ve always had a fondness for places like this that are in between. Still, I’m realistic about both the pros and cons of living and practicing law in a mid-size community. In case you’ve thought about moving up or down the population ladder, I’ll tell you what I’ve found. (These are my opinions only. Except for the house price figures, the following is NOT based on research, science, etc., which I leave to the big-city folk with their seismographs and observatories and whatnot.)
Pros: The commute to my office is 10 minutes, and I live in what amounts to a suburb. I can walk to the courthouse in about three minutes. If I need a public parking space, I can usually find one within a block of my destination, and it costs less than a dollar per hour. Appearance and behavior is casual (which some might consider a “con”). You can wear jeans and go without styling your hair just about anywhere — including your law office, most of the time. Public parks are mostly safe, clean and uncrowded, but smaller and with fewer amenities than those in larger cities.
Cons: To see live professional sports, the biggest-name music artists, and top-end art and historical exhibitions, you have to travel to Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., each a couple of hours away, considering traffic and the border crossing. Many areas of special recreational and cultural interest exist here, but they’re small. If you like to play cricket, you might be able to find someone to bat the ball around with, but you’ll probably have trouble fielding a team. Likewise, although people are generally open to individuals of racial/ethnic/lifestyle diversity, there just aren’t enough people to have vibrant communities in most of those areas. Also, if you’re much beyond college age, beware that the social scene is more “family-friendly” than “swinging single.”
2. Cost of Living and Doing Business
Pros: According to Zillow and Trulia, the median home in Seattle sells for $409,000 these days, compared to $270,000 in Bellingham. I’m not sure what that means to any individual buyer, but my feeling is that while you can get more for your money here, finding a good, well-located house still takes time and may not yield the savings you’d expect. On the other hand, a small office space close to the courthouse and suitable for a one- or two-person law practice can be had for about what it costs to lease a parking space in a major metro area.
Cons: While there are plenty of recent graduates of our university and two local colleges willing to work for less to stay in the area, to retain high-quality staff in the long run, you’ll probably end up paying nearly as much here as in a larger city. Likewise, services, utilities, and general cost of living don’t appear to be much lower here than in the Seattle area, although the cheaper commuting and parking help limit expenses.
Pros: Once you have a job and enough work to pay the bills (and that’s a big if, as mentioned in the “Cons” below), this is a great place to practice. Besides the lifestyle benefits, the bar here is made up of many smart, dedicated, generous people who are here just because they want to be. It’s still too small of a place to get away with being a jackass for long (with a few exceptions, of course).
Cons: Partly because it is such a good place to work and live, there are about 50 qualified applicants for every attorney job opportunity that comes up. Also, nearly all the legal employment here is in government and solo/small firms. A “big” firm here is 6–10 lawyers, and we only have a few of those. Accordingly, it takes a long time for a new lawyer to work his or her way up to anything resembling big-city/big-firm compensation. Most who were expecting otherwise drop out, and the rest decide the non-economic benefits are worth the tradeoff.
4. Practice Atmosphere
Pros: As noted, our reasonably small legal community (a couple hundred actively practicing attorneys) is generally collegial in dealing with one another on and off the job. There’s a natural incentive to being cooperative when you’re working with someone you’ll likely have to deal with again. Likewise, with the relatively small number of judges on our bench (we have only three superior court judges, with a fourth position recently approved), it’s not hard to be on good speaking terms with the local judiciary.
Cons: Because of the small number of lawyers and judges, if you do manage to run afoul of one of them, you may have few alternatives to dealing with them anyway, especially if you practice exclusively in one area of law.
5. Community/Professional Involvement
Pros: Our bar is one of the top in the state in donation rates to legal aid programs, and our annual fundraising auction to support pro bono work brings in contributions nearing six figures. Our tight-knit bar exerts a certain amount of positive peer pressure to help out. Meanwhile, as in most cities big and small, our members are active in legal and community organizations, politics, and social leadership. We’re small enough that it’s still possible to really know what’s going on around town.
Cons: Because we’re 100 miles from the nearest major U.S. city, we still feel somewhat isolated. And there is little or no activity in certain areas of legal and social interest here. So, to participate in statewide or broader activities, including WSBA and other law-related programs, we need to travel quite a bit or connect online.
With due respect to the city slickers and small-town lawyers, keep in mind those of us who prefer to do our thing in the many great medium-sized cities of our state.