Coming Back to Colville

Downtown Colville under blue sky

A few minutes after entering the offices of McGrane & Schuerman, PLLC, it occurs to me that Alison McGrane has barely sat down. Even on her first day back at work after a San Diego vacation with her husband, daughter, and son, she was scurrying from one end of the office to another, walking and talking, standing and talking, standing and reading, standing and signing.

Picture the high-velocity energy of a character in an Aaron Sorkin show.

Except that when you compare this image to that of a rural attorney stereotype, things don’t square up. McGrane has been on the receiving end of these stereotypes. Lawyers from big cities are sometimes prone to treating their rural counterparts as less capable in the law, simpler, less complex—in other words, stupid. That type of assumption is, of course, stupid in itself, and despite the extreme ruralness of the place McGrane calls home, she and the rest of the team at McGrane & Schuerman are anything but stupid.

Colville (pronounced “call-vil”) is about as rural as rural gets. It’s not only the seat of one of the smallest counties in the state, a city of about 5,000 people among the broader Stevens County population of about 47,000, it’s also one of the poorest, with a per capita income of about $22,000, a little more than half (58 percent) the $38,000 per capita income for residents of King County.

Stevens, Ferry, and Pend Oreille counties are among one of the only parts of the state that have a tri-county judicial district, according to McGrane. Judges bounce from one county to another, traversing hours through winding backcountry mountains to ensure some level of court access for the sparsely populated region. The three counties also share health care, which has become particularly difficult to staff due to limited housing and the difficulty of drawing graduate-level professionals to rural areas, McGrane says.

Alison McGrane

Shortly after I arrive, one of the first things McGrane does is pull up a map to explain how judges—indeed, just about everyone in the area—moves among the three counties to access or deliver needed services. Doing so requires long drives along winding roads that snake through the mountains of northeast Washington, which are speckled with Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Actually, the first thing she does is clear one of the stacks of folders so she can get to her computer. McGrane’s office is packed with boxes and folders. There are foot-tall stacks of manila that form the walls of a small fortress on the perimeter of her desk. Oil paintings of farmhouses sit unhung on the floor. It’s not a messy office so much as a chaotically ordered space that seems to be designed with functionality and practicality in mind more than pure aesthetics. Besides, on this day, McGrane is barely in her office anyway.

After clearing a path to her computer, McGrane explains that Stevens and surrounding counties are largely state land, federal land, tribal land, and Bureau of Land Management property—in Ferry County, less than 18 percent is private property. But the transactions for that private land in the three counties take up a fair amount of her and the three other attorneys’ time. As one of the only multi-attorney firms in the area, everyone in the office is busy.

“People are always like, ‘Do you specialize?’” McGrane tells me. “And I’m like, ‘Anything civil.’”

By late morning, McGrane is ready to meet with her first client: an older man wearing an orange baseball hat, tinted eyeglasses, and a white button-up shirt adorned with images of sailboats and palm trees. The man, who I’ll call Hank, was back to go over changes with his estate since the last time he met with McGrane. He also seems to settle a bit and slowed his pace of buying and selling properties, which McGrane appears relieved to hear. She hints at this, using a small arsenal of aphorisms with Hank, whom she had clearly developed a close relationship. For example:

  • “You’re not a spring chicken anymore.”
  • “I wouldn’t want to see you in a guardianship if you lost your marbles.”
  • “You’ve been wheelin’ and dealin’ for years.”

Despite the ease and familiarity she exudes, it’s safe to say that when McGrane was growing up in Colville, she never would have thought she’d be spending mornings this way.

“I told my parents I was never coming back to this little town in the middle of nowhere,” McGrane says. “And here I am.”

She got here—back in the middle of nowhere—by way of Southern California and college at the University of California, San Diego. Once McGrane had ventured out and got a taste of big city life, she realized it didn’t suit her.

“I went to Southern California and I was like, ‘Oh God, this is how people live?’” she remembers thinking. “Maybe home isn’t so bad.”

After undergrad, she completed law school in just 2 1/2 years, getting a head start toward her legal career by attending an early summer start program “because I really wanted to be a lawyer.” Her lawyerly desires were so much so that she finished school in San Diego on a Friday, walked-in graduation on Saturday morning, then packed and made the 22-hour marathon drive back up to Spokane to start at Gonzaga University School of Law the following Monday. By age 25, McGrane had graduated cum laude and become a full-fledged lawyer.

Her path to the firm is the type that they all hope to replicate when hiring new staff: Hire locals and bring back people who grew up there.

One of the office staffers, Abby, also a local, tells me that McGrane frequently encourages her to go to law school and come back to work for the firm. Because eventually, McGrane often tells her, she’s going to realize how much more she knows about the law than licensed lawyers, but won’t be able to do as much about it. Other staffers have been with the office for years, even decades; in fact, today a few people are out of the office attending the funeral of a former client.

The way McGrane talks to Abby is familiar in the way that long-time colleagues become almost family. And it is a family business. In 1978, McGrane’s father, David, started driving west with her mother in a search for a new home and a place to escape the brutal Midwest winters. They made it to Colville where David talked his way into a job at the firm where he would eventually become partner alongside Charles Schuerman (whom McGrane and others affectionately call “Charlie”).

Charlie is like a second father to McGrane. People sometimes mistake her for Charlie’s biological kid, and most of the time she just goes along with it. Now retired, Charlie still comes into the office regularly. He’s known for stopping by with armfuls of food to give the staff a free lunch. Almost on cue, Charlie walks into the office with two shopping bags.

“I brought the extra buns and the extra chips from yesterday’s Rotary thing,” he announces and works his way toward the back of the office to unload his haul.

Although Charlie didn’t expect to be interviewed, he happily shares his thoughts on working in a small-town firm. He has bright blue eyes and looks you in the eye when he speaks, and when he speaks it sounds like he already had a speech prepared. Charlie says a firm needs three things: strong skills, good staff, and good internal systems. This firm, he says, has those three things.

“It really is the family of the office,” he says. “Your ability to be successful has a number of pieces in the practice of a small town.”

Importantly, he continues, practicing law in a small town requires one to know how it’s different than other places. As one example, litigation is rarely the answer.

“Even if you win, you lose… ,” Charlie says. “You’re going to fight your next-door neighbor.”

McGrane echoes the sentiment.

“What dad and Charlie always used to tell me is sometimes you make more money on the clients you don’t take,” she says.

The firm is established enough to have the luxury of turning away the occasional client. Additionally, they’re almost always drowning in work. A real estate boom from the previous year brought in almost more business than they could handle. It was prompted by money flooding in from out of the area, which had the added drawback of skyrocketing property values and making it near impossible for locals to find housing. These are the types of problems McGrane and the rest of McGrane & Schuerman love to fix. From the teenager who swore she would leave Colville and never return, McGrane has now found a true home in her hometown.

“The fun part is now I can be useful to my friends’ parents rather than [being] the 16-year-old who just eats all their food,” she jokes.

McGrane & Schuerman is one of the few law firms in the surrounding area; the attorneys in the firm—after Dave and Charlie’s retirement in 2020, they include McGrane, Mike Waters, Logan Worley, and Krystal Tate—are more than lawyers. They’re confidants, they’re resources for information that isn’t strictly related to the law because, McGrane says, “Either you know it, or you know who does.” Nearly everyone in the office is a Rotarian, and they frequently get hugs and gift baskets from happy clients.

“We truly care about our clients and strive to be honorable individuals and good community members,” McGrane says.