Back By Dinner: Finding Work-Life Balance in a Rural Law Firm

Ryan Ortuno and Kim Boggs

If you ignore the weekly migraines, the debt, the stupidly high cost of living, and the fact that he barely saw his family, you could say that Ryan Ortuno had it all.

In many ways—at least the ways you learn in law school, Ortuno explained—he had found success. Except the reality—most of his clients were insurance reps and business execs—fell short of the romantic ideal Ortuno had of being a lawyer who helps real people.

Ortuno was heading toward the partner track at a major firm in Los Angeles, and the job allowed him to purchase a home in Southern California with his wife and three kids. Although he had to take out three loans to cover living expenses and law school tuition, which necessitated so many working hours that he barely saw his kids.

“If I was lucky, I’d maybe give the oldest one a bath and read a book to the second one,” he said of his typical workdays.

In law school, Ortuno remembers being trained to strive for a specific type of success: Go to a major city, get a job at a large firm, make partner, partake in the luxuries that come with such a lifestyle. In that sense, he’d achieved the law school goal.

“Until you and your wife are going, ‘What the heck are we doing? This is silly,’” he said.

So they did something. Ortuno and his family said goodbye to their Orange County home and the frantic lifestyle of a big-firm lawyer. They moved to his wife’s old hometown in Eastern Washington. In 2017, they packed up and headed to Dayton, a city of about 2,500 people in Columbia County, burrowed in the southeastern corner of the state about 30 minutes from Walla Walla.

It wasn’t the image of success that had been painted for Ortuno in school, but it turned out to be exactly the right decision toward a different type of success.

“The good thing here … most of the time when I’m completely underwater, I enjoy what I do,” Ortuno said while sitting on the edge of a desk in his downtown Dayton office. “And I could not say that about my previous legal life.”

Downtown Dayton oozes small-town charm. If you’re coming from the west on Hwy 12 you’ll pass the fading illustration of the Jolly Green Giant, which is etched into the hillside as an homage to the now-defunct Green Giant cannery, which shut down in 2005. Keep driving until the highway transitions to Main Street and you’ll see a hand-painted sign that reads, “I’ve got worms.” Across the Touchet River, which bisects the city, you’ll encounter a mélange of quintessential Americana businesses like Dingle’s Hardware and Suffield Furniture. Not far from the furniture store, sandwiched between a bakery and single-screen movie theater, is the office of Boggs Ortuno PLLC (formerly Nealey & Marinella).

On an unusually wet and windy spring morning, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” was playing in the office’s lobby. Ortuno emerged from his office wearing jeans and a blue-checkered shirt. One of the first things I learned about the office is they were suing the motel where I was staying. Given my experience checking into the place, I said I wasn’t surprised, which Ortuno thought was funny as hell. The next thing I learned is that Ortuno likes to joke around. His experience before Dayton was plagued with stress and jockeying  to rise through the ranks, but the Ortuno who now lives in Dayton has different, more grounded problems.

For example, when talking about the shortage of lawyers in rural areas like Dayton, he joked, “Every time a new person gets admitted to the bar around here [we] have a celebration.”

If Ortuno has one regret, it’s probably the relative lack of food options compared to L.A. Throughout my visit, Ortuno repeatedly talked about a restaurant that a former Portland chef opened, and how much he mourned its loss when the restaurant went belly up during the pandemic.

Food options aside, Ortuno has gained far more than he’s lost. To borrow the cliché: Ortuno found balance—except neither Ortuno nor his law partner, Kim Boggs, like that word.

“Balance is an overused word, but the idea is we’re striving for balance,” Boggs said.

Boggs’ path to the law and Dayton began at the University of Puget Sound Law School. Her parents lived in Dayton and during her 2L she became a Rule-9 Licensed Intern with Nealey & Marinella. After graduating, she made an exceedingly brief stop in the Bay Area before realizing it wasn’t for her. Boggs quickly returned to Dayton to work at the firm full-time. Back then, it also served as a title company and the prosecutor’s office.

“For years this office was the law firm for Dayton,” Ortuno said.

Originally Nealey & Marinella, then Marinella & Boggs, it  became Boggs Ortuno PLLC when Ortuno became partner in 2021. Boggs knew Ortuno through her husband, who is friends with Ortuno’s father-in-law. He joined in 2017 as an associate and, together, they continued in the tradition the firm was built upon: serving as lawyers who become generational staples for local families. In addition to the title business, the firm focuses on estate planning, real property, land use, and business law. And they’ve had little trouble staying busy.

“There’s way more work than you could think,” Ortuno said. “I was surprised. I was nervous when I came here, but I trusted Kim.”

In addition to being a partner with the firm and title company, Boggs also serves as a district court judge for Columbia County. On the morning I visited, Boggs grabbed her things to head to court. She yelled to one of the firm’s staff on her way out to remind them not to lock her out because she didn’t have her keys, walked outside and braced against wind ripping down Main Street, and made a quick jaunt across the street to the courthouse.

The entrance of the Columbia County Courthouse opens into twin spiraling staircases of dark oak. The inside of Boggs’ courtroom is surrounded by galleries on either side, and a ceiling that looms high overhead. There was a bust of Abraham Lincoln behind the bench and a large grandfather clock to the side of the room. I scribbled on my notepad, “very Atticus Finch.”

There was just the one hearing that day, which was unusual for Boggs, who said there had been an uptick in cases recently. When I asked if it was hard juggling the firm’s usual legal clients, plus the title business, and also a part-time judicial role, she said, “It requires a lot of help, and I have good help.”

In Dayton, good help really is hard to find.

“It’s challenging running a business out here,” Ortuno explained. Not challenging because of a lack of work. In fact, Boggs and Ortuno are awash in work; so much that they have to turn some clients away. The problem is that there aren’t enough lawyers in the area to handle the workload. Additionally, it’s difficult to find support staff. Boggs Ortuno PLLC recently lost its longtime paralegal, who was commuting about an hour each way from nearby Pasco. She was eventually lured to take a new job at an Amazon warehouse, which was closer to her home.

“To lose that around here is like having your heart ripped out of you,” Ortuno said.

Boggs and Ortuno explained that few new lawyers are willing to work in a small community like Dayton.

“They’re applying in Spokane, they’re applying in Seattle, because that’s what they’re groomed to do,” Ortuno said.

The sales pitch for Dayton requires nuance, which doesn’t make for a good sales pitch. Boggs and Ortuno can’t offer more money than a large Seattle firm, but the cost of living is significantly lower and a lawyer can do quite well financially. They can’t promise large, prestigious cases, but they can offer the chance to engage with real people and gain practical experience taking depositions and performing other tasks which junior associates almost never get to perform elsewhere. Most of all, they can promise a balanced lifestyle where there is plenty of work, but also the ability to leave the office while it’s still light outside. And Ortuno said he’s paid off more student debt in the last two years in Dayton than he did after a decade in Southern California.

Working in a rural area means being more than a lawyer, Ortuno and Boggs said. People in Dayton view their lawyer more like a family doctor. Lawyers become de facto grief counselors and confidants for clients, who need empathy as much as straight legal advice.

“What we’re doing here is serving our community,” Boggs said. “Were trying to make money serving our community, but we’re not winning the lottery … . My actual job is also a service act.”

As if to prove the point that it’s a small community, in the late afternoon, one of the firm’s front-desk staff poked her head into Boggs’ office with a cryptic message.

“We got some new wall art,” she said.

By wall art, she meant that one of the local realtors, with whom Boggs and Ortuno regularly work through their title business, had printed a few pictures of himself and taped them to the wall out front, which was adorned with framed pictures of Boggs and Ortuno and some of the office’s accolades. The law partners laughed about it and shared stories about working with the realtor—in both a professional capacity and personally.

Finding success as a lawyer is about making choices, Ortuno said. His was a choice between having a life with family and friends and chasing a version of success that did not allow for such a life.

In California, Ortuno “never even saw my kids.” Now in Dayton, he coaches his kids’ sports teams—one of his kids plays little league with the grandson of the local bailiff. Outside of work, he and Boggs were planning for a murder mystery dinner with a few friends. Sometimes they spend late nights catching up on work; sometimes they head home early.

In LA, Ortuno barely got to see his kids when they were awake, but on that day in Dayton he got to leave the office to pick them up from school—and the sun was still out.