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Georgia’s law schools are turning out plenty of eager young graduates, but they aren’t making their way to southwest Georgia. Lawyers in that region are downright few and far between. From the hunting grounds of the plantation belt near Albany to the pine forests near Columbus, the practice of law is a rare business. Once outside the bustling court communities of Albany in Dougherty County and Columbus in Muscogee County, the legal landscape is a hinterland. Marion and Stewart counties each have just two practicing attorneys. Calhoun, Talbot, Clay, Chattahoochee and Schley Counties each have just one lawyer. Three counties — Webster, Quitman and Baker — have no lawyers. NINE LAWYERS IN 10 COUNTIES That’s nine lawyers practicing in a 10-county area stretching from below Albany to just north of Columbus. Most are either semi-retirees or solo practitioners who have eschewed the trappings of big-firm life for the small-town life. And while they say a rural law practice isn’t the life for everyone, they wouldn’t have it any other way. They don’t get rich. Nor do they get the big civil cases that make headlines. They live in sparsely populated areas where economic growth is slow, which means that a lot of legal work is never billed. Ed Cannington Jr., the long-time mayor of Lumpkin in Stewart County, doesn’t have a shingle hanging outside his door to announce his practice. He doesn’t need one. Folks continually drop in his office on the courthouse square with questions or stop him as he walks the three blocks from his home to his office. After 25 years of practice in Buena Vista, Wayne Jernigan doesn’t carry business cards unless he’s going to a strange place. “Everybody knows me,” says the 60-year-old lawyer. The only other lawyer in town, 37-year-old Jay P. Wells, works in shirt sleeves. “If I’ve got to put a tie on to do it, it doesn’t interest me.” THE TRADEOFFS If it all sounds idyllic, there are tradeoffs. First, there are the economics of practicing law in the region. If a first-year associate salary of more than $100,000 is your vision, Wells says, “That vision isn’t out here.” Willis Duvall, 73, who returned to his home in Calhoun County after a year and a half of practice in Atlanta, says “If somebody’s looking to make a lot of money, this is the wrong place to come.” Low population, low income levels and low litigation dockets combine to create a scarcity of lawyers in many southwest Georgia counties, despite their proximity to sizable cities such as Albany and Columbus. Nine of the 10 counties surveyed have populations less than 7,000, according to 1998 census data. The only county with more — Chattahoochee with 16,679 — has its numbers swollen by military personnel at Fort Benning. Webster is one of the state of Georgia’s smallest counties, both in land size and population. Census data for 1998 show just 2,193 residents. The mainstay of its economy is agriculture and timber. On the lawn of the Webster County courthouse in Preston, a historic marker notes that the county was the birthplace of one of the state’s best-known lawyers, Walter F. George — Georgia Supreme Court justice and longtime U.S. senator. Today, however, Webster County has no lawyers. Webster County Superior Court Clerk Tina Blankenship says lawyers neither live nor work in the county. Webster has had residents leave and become lawyers elsewhere, but hasn’t had an operating law office since the former court clerk’s son set up a courthouse office in the 1950s or ’60s, Blankenship says. DOCKET ISN’T LARGE The court doesn’t have a large docket, according to the clerk — fewer than 75 civil cases a year and fewer than 50 criminal. “I’ve often wished I were an attorney,” she says, adding that county residents frequently need one. Baker County, site of some of South Georgia’s biggest quail plantations and of the region’s most striking poverty, is also without a practicing lawyer, although one Albany attorney lives there. The county’s first public library opened two years ago, set up and manned by volunteers. Baker has had no courthouse since the swollen Flint River flooded the old structure in 1994. County courts have operated out of a corridor in the local Headstart program building ever since, although a former schoolhouse is now being renovated to house the courts. Willis Duvall’s office sits just off state Hwy. 37, which runs through Edison. Edison is the largest town, although not the county seat, of Calhoun County. Situated just west of Dougherty County, Calhoun is dotted with cotton fields and peanut farms. Most of its businesses are agriculture-related. Like most lawyers in these rural areas, Duvall grew up where he later chose to practice. Except for a stint in the Army, law school and a year and a half practicing in Atlanta, he has lived and worked in Calhoun County. “I just was used to rural, small-town life,” he says of his decision to leave Atlanta and return home. “I have not regretted it.” When he first set up shop, Duvall says, two other lawyers practiced in the county. But he’s been alone for many years now. “People just feel like they can make more money in metropolitan areas,” he says. He says he doesn’t make a lot, but has led a comfortable life. “I never had a desire to be anywhere else.” His son is also a lawyer, but practices about 40 miles away in Albany. USED TO DEFEND MOONSHINERS In the early years, Duvall did a lot of criminal defense work, including defending moonshiners. He never did much civil litigation simply because the county doesn’t have it, he says. Now, at the age of 73, he does mostly real estate work, and serves as the city attorney and counsel for the local board of education and hospital authority. He enjoys the close relationships of a small town. He even makes house calls, mostly for elderly clients, he says. Duvall hopes to wind down his practice soon, although he says doing that in a small town is problematic. “That’s one of the things that makes it difficult to quit: people depend on you.” Two women are the only lawyers in two counties along the Alabama border. They still practice, but only on rare occasions. Clay County’s Carolyn West, 82, does occasional legal work such as a will for a friend, but says she is mostly retired. She attributes the lack of lawyers in the area to general economic depression. “It’s hard to make a living. People get out,” West says. Dallas Jankowski, a Chattahoochee County commissioner and the only lawyer listed in the county, says she too has retired from the practice of law. Until July, John W. “Bill” Johnson had company in the legal profession in Talbot County. But when Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes named Talbotton sole practitioner Frank J. Jordon Jr. to a Superior Court seat in the Chattahoochee Circuit, Johnson became the county’s only lawyer. A LAWYER AND SHERIFF Johnson’s law practice, however, is just a sideline for the job he has held since 1977 — county sheriff. While he once had a practice here in the 1970s, Johnson says he does little legal work now other than handling some real estate matters. Given his law enforcement job, he can’t handle any criminal defense work. “The practice of law has not always been what I wanted to do,” he says. Having a law degree is a good thing, he explains; practicing law is a different matter. Chief jailer Shirley McKenzie, however, says Johnson has a lot of clients, just not paying ones. Johnson is continually helping out folks who drop by the sheriff’s department by answering questions or making a phone call to straighten out troubles with contracts or creditors, says McKenzie. The sheriff does that for free, she says, because so many people in the county can’t afford a lawyer. When the state Department of Transportation condemned part of her property and offered her just $110 for it, McKenzie says her boss told her she wasn’t being treated right and he would represent her. The case was tried last year before a Talbot Superior Court jury, she says. On one side were four DOT lawyers, outfitted in “$300 shoes,” she recalls, and accompanied by paralegals, surveyors and appraisers. As for Johnson, she says, “He just had me.” The jury awarded her $32,000, plus interest. “Like Lincoln said, a lawyer’s advice is his stock and trade,” Johnson says. “But I’ve never charged for it.” Most folks, he adds, simply can’t afford a lawyer. The DOT trial, the sheriff says, was the only contested case he’s ever handled. ROOTS GO WAY BACK Just below Talbot and just east of Muscogee lies Marion County. The two lawyers who practice there have roots that go back for generations. “You can go back in the Census and see Jernigans and Wellses,” says Jay Wells, the younger of the two Buena Vista sole practitioners. Wells’ family goes back to 1829 in Marion County. Wayne Jernigan’s farm has been in his family since 1852. Most rural lawyers in southwest Georgia have similar histories, says Jernigan. “If they didn’t, they’d follow the money and go to Atlanta.” Jernigan practiced in Atlanta early in his career and says he enjoyed it. “But I was born and raised on a farm and I wanted to go back.” So back he came to Marion County and the family’s 525-acre farm where he’s up early and late tending to farm business, including the cattle he raises. In between, he handles real estate matters, divorce and custody cases, land disputes and simple bankruptcies. He’s been the county attorney for 25 years, the city attorney for more than 10 years, and serves as municipal judge in Hampton, Butler and Cusseta. PRO BONO, COUNTRY STYLE And like Sheriff Johnson, he does a lot of work for what city lawyers call pro bono work. “In a small town you do a lot of work for free, whether you want to or not,” he says. Sometimes people just don’t have the money. Other times, Jernigan donates his services to local churches and hopes “the good Lord will smile on me.” Then there are the continual questions over the phone or from drop-in visitors. “You don’t bill those at all. People just need information. Usually that’s the end of it.” Jernigan, whose office is a renovated house just off the courthouse square, says rural lawyers won’t make the money their city counterparts make, but they can live a good life. Still, he says he didn’t encourage his son, an assistant district attorney in Columbus, to practice in Marion County. “He’ll do a lot better [in Columbus],” Jernigan says, adding that his son makes the same money there he could in Buena Vista and has insurance and retirement benefits, all without the stresses of a solo practice. Wells, the other lawyer in Buena Vista, has been practicing there for 11 years and insists that “this is the only way I want to practice law.” He works 8 to 5, closes the office for an hour at lunch, and rarely works weekends. He raises pine trees and his family on a 400-acre farm outside town. It takes a special type of lawyer to make it in a small town, Wells says, and newcomers would do well to arrive “under another attorney’s umbrella.” Successful small-town practitioners aren’t afraid to just sit down and talk, and are open and honest with clients. “The day you open your doors, be ready to talk to people,” he says. CAN’T ESCAPE JUDGMENT Shoddy or mediocre work might escape notice in a big firm, Wells says, but not in a small town. “There is no protection out here,” he says. “It’s not like Atlanta where a big Yellow Pages ad can generate cases. Here the advertising is word of mouth.” Jimmy Brazier was Stewart County’s probate judge long before he became its second practicing lawyer. To get his law degree, Brazier drove to Atlanta two nights a week to attend law school in the 1980s. While he has a full-time job running the probate court, Brazier also has a side real estate practice and employs a paralegal. The county is simply poor, Brazier says, lacking industry and available land to attract newcomers. While nearby Marion County can attract some Columbus residents seeking land outside the city, most of Stewart County’s land is owned by paper companies and old families, he says. There is plenty of legal work, but it is primarily indigent criminal defense, he says. “You basically wind up doing it for nothing.” Ed Cannington does more criminal defense work than anything else, although he says he takes most “anything that walks in the door.” While he gets an occasional personal injury case such as an auto accident, he says there’s little significant civil litigation in Stewart County. “Folks down here are not hot to trot to sue each other.” Cannington says he simply likes the pace and quality of the small-town life. He knows his juries and he knows his clients. Like the other lawyers in sparsely populated counties, Cannington says he often works for free. “Folks just don’t have a lot of money, but they need representation. I know a lot of them. If they don’t use me, they won’t have anybody,” he says. “I pay my light bills. That’s about it. I never did get in it for the money.” While he’s the mayor and not the city attorney, Cannington says he often works for the city for free. He’s never needed a city attorney since Lumpkin has never been sued, he says, rapping his knuckles on his wooden desk. He says he would advise big-city lawyers looking for a change to give Stewart County a try. “I need somebody to sue my clients,” he quips. “It’s hard to represent both sides.”

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