A Family of Lawyers in Oyster Country

World's largest oyster in South Bend.

It’s a brisk Tuesday morning in South Bend and the big case on the morning docket at Pacific County North District Court is a charge against four defendants for selling shellfish without a label. A few moments before, the state opted to drop charges on another case described as an assault “involving raw eggs.” Throughout the morning there are a few other cases to tie up, like a name change, and quashing warrants, possible probation violations.

The Pacific County Courthouse sits atop a hill that offers wide views of the Willapa River, which bleeds into the Willapa Bay and out to the Pacific Ocean where it crashes against the shores of Long Beach, Klipsan, and other parts of south county that folks in South Bend simply refer to as “the beach.”

Pacific County Courthouse

Willapa is oyster country. Down the hill from the courthouse is the Chester Tavern, an unassuming dive bar that The New York Times said “may [have] the best fried oysters in the country.” A little farther up Hwy 101, which also serves as the main thoroughfare of downtown South Bend, is an oyster half-shell, speckled with greenish yellow moss, that measures about the size of a car hood and is the self-proclaimed “world’s largest oyster.” It’s the type of schlocky roadside attraction that gets away with such bold claims despite being, in actuality, a cement sculpture in disrepair.

Back in court, as if to prove that this is indeed a small community courtroom, one person explains that the court is mistaken in thinking he hadn’t reported enough community service hours—and he can easily prove it because the person he reports to shares a last name with the judge overseeing his case this morning: Betsy Penoyar.

You could argue that in South Bend, indeed across north Pacific County, the Penoyar family is the legal profession. If you go looking for an active, private practice lawyer in Pacific County, you have a 40 percent chance of ending up with Betsy or other member of the Penoyar clan.

“Up here there’s just us at this point,” Betsy tells me later. We’re sitting in the court’s jury deliberation room and Betsy has changed out of her robe. She’s sitting in one of the oversized leather chairs with her feet pulled up, cross-legged. A light drizzle is beginning to turn to a heavy rain that’s snaking down the south-facing window pane. She goes on to say, lightheartedly, that “we get nobody to fight against.” But on a more serious note, “We do need more people.”

Pacific County needs more people, specifically lawyers, because there aren’t enough Penoyars to meet the legal needs of the county’s approximately 22,000 residents. There are several lawyers in south Pacific County, but it’s an hour away from the county seat of South Bend.

(Left to right) Tom Penoyar, Will Penoyar, Joel Penoyar, Jon Penoyar, Betsy Penoyar, Edward Penoyar, and Emily Rambo

“Most of the kids going to law school come from the city or suburbs; towns like this are just something you drive through going to the beach,” the eldest son, Will, tells me as we’re chatting back at the Penoyar Law Offices.

Despite being the son of two lawyers (Betsy and husband, Joel) Will didn’t plan to become a lawyer—but the calling eventually caught up with him. After completing his undergrad at the University of Washington, Will decided to attend law school at the University of Georgia, then returned to his hometown of South Bend. He started as a contract lawyer with the Washington State Office of Public Defense and quickly gained a wealth of experience, found a steady stream of clients, and was able to pull in a regular monthly income. After about five years, he switched practice areas and joined the family business at Penoyar Law Office, where he has mostly worked in property law—which tapped into his childhood love of maps and put to use his undergraduate degree in cartography.

Betsy and Joel are parents to three lawyers and two doctors. The younger son, Ed, also works at Penoyar Law; their daughter, Emily, mainly practices in Olympia. In fact, Ed and Emily went to law school at Betsy’s and Joel’s alma mater: the University of Oregon.

Betsy chalks up the slew of well-educated, successful kids to their upbringing in South Bend. She describes them as “nice, rural kids” who got far more attention and help in a small community school than she imagines they would have received in a large city. Likewise, she and Joel couldn’t have devoted the same time to raising their kids if they were constantly chasing billable hours at a large firm.

“I just can’t imagine raising kids any other way,” Betsy says. “It’s nice to pretty much always be available.”

Pacific County is one of the least-populated counties in the state. Despite this, the Penoyars have more work than they can handle. They find themselves referring clients to adjoining counties where there’s a better chance of finding someone with enough time to take new cases. According to Joel, there used to be more lawyers in the area—not many, just two or three—but, combined with the expanding population, the loss of so few lawyers means there simply aren’t enough legal minds in the area to take on the caseload.

For the Penoyars, like many other rural attorneys, specializing in a specific area of law is a luxury they can’t have. When someone walks through the door with a legal problem, they know that other options are limited, if not entirely closed. Will, for example, says he would like to specialize in something—to hyperfocus on a branch of law—but the nature of the business and the community requires broad knowledge and adaptability.

“You kind of end up being the clearinghouse for everything,” Will says. “Because we’re the only game in town, people will call us a lot.”

It probably wouldn’t take much to beef up Pacific County’s legal community to meet public demand. Betsy thinks as few as two or three new lawyers could mean the difference between locals finding legal help locally and being sent out of county. In fact, one of the reasons Betsy joined the WSBA Small Town and Rural Practice (STAR) Committee was to attract new blood to the area.

“I thought if we can just convince a few, even a half-dozen law school grads to move to a rural community,” she says. “If they could understand how great the life is here in small towns.”

Because, at the moment, new lawyers aren’t tripping over each other to work in South Bend or other small towns. Betsy and Joel will eventually retire. Fortunately, as a family of lawyers, they’re able to pass on their knowledge to their children so they can continue serving the firm’s clients. It avoids the brain drain that worries many rural lawyers who see long-time attorneys retiring with no one to take their place, but losing two private practice lawyers in Pacific County equates to a 15 percent drop in the available supply.

“I think most people, especially younger people, just really need or want to be in cities,” says Ed, who grew up in South Bend and moved back home to practice law. “Honestly, just the prospect of being bored probably keeps a lot of young people from coming out to rural places.”

For Will, one of the main advantages of South Bend is that it’s a stellar environment to raise his kids. In South Bend he has a community, he has a quality of life that he doesn’t think he can find in a larger city. When you look at the state of the country these days, it can seem hopelessly polarized—that’s not the case for Will and others in South Bend, he says. “It’s hard to demonize people and hate people … if you can just talk to them as human beings there’s a lot more calm and nuance.”

Plus, lawyers can still make plenty of money, even in a small town. The billable rates aren’t quite as high, but that’s easily balanced by the plentiful amount of work and the relatively low cost of living.

Additionally, explains Joel, “Here you make a big difference.”

Both Will and Ed say they regularly run into their clients out in the world. They take calls after hours and on weekends; not because they’re forced to, but because that’s what people do when they’re looking out for their community.

“There’s more of a motivation than being a mechanical billing machine,” Ed says.