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PROGRESS 2022: A rural attorney thrives on small-town work

News Photo by Julie Riddle Attorney Justin Wilson works recently with electronic client files at his office.

HARRISVILLE — A tiny county provides plenty of work when you’re the only lawyer in town, a rural attorney said.

The State Bar of Michigan reports 16 attorneys working in Alcona County. But attorney Justin Wilson, with a practice in Harrisville, said that number shrinks after factoring in the attorneys working as judge and prosecutor and those with addresses in the county who don’t actually practice there.

In reality, he said, most legal work in the area is handled by him and one other lawyer — and he can’t handle much more, Wilson said recently.

Serving a small county — population about 10,000, spread over 675 square miles — means taking whatever walks in the door, sometimes turning away people because he doesn’t have time to juggle it all.

From property disputes to Children’s Protective Services cases, Wilson dodges in and out of courthouses all week, motoring to other counties to visit clients in jail and represent people in court as needed.

The region could use more attorneys to make sure those who need legal help get it, and attracting those attorneys starts with kids, Wilson said.

Many people who move to the Alpena area have left and come back, drawn by the area’s natural beauty and likable atmosphere. If those people left thinking about a law career — that idea planted in childhood — they might return, bringing the skills and training the region needs to maintain a sustainable attorney pool, he suggested.

“They might not come back right away,” he said, in his small office in the wooded, winding county. “But, 10 years later, it starts looking a lot better up here.”

A rural attorney’s day consists of “a lot of running around,” Wilson said, describing hustling between courthouses for court motion days in multiple counties.

Mondays mean court in Tawas. On Tuesdays, he appears in Iosco County and in Harrisville, “which is a trick,” he said.

Videoconference technology has proved a game-changer for rural attorneys, allowing them to spend less time trying to be in two counties at once. The technology doesn’t always work, though, and court days can get off schedule.

“And, all of a sudden, you’re late in two counties and annoying two judges at once,” Wilson said.

The attorney practiced law in Grand Rapids for five years before moving to Harrisville. In the big city, he was one of a throng of attorneys appearing before about 40 judges.

With rural work, lawyers can get to know each other, leading to fewer surprises in court. Fewer attorneys jostling for position may mean he can bend a prosecutor’s ear, sharing details of a client’s life in hopes of a more understanding, nuanced resolution, Wilson said.

He doesn’t have to advertise in Alcona County, as he did in the city. As almost the only show in town, he can barely keep up with demand.

Many potential clients walk away, unable to afford an attorney. His fees are much lower here than in Grand Rapids, and other local lawyers charge less than big-city lawyers. With his five years of legal experience in Harrisville, he may raise his rates. The new number would still equal not much more than half of what clients would pay in Kent County.

Some think of rural attorneys as bumbling and unprofessional, he knows. Sure, he said, that could happen.

“There’s bad lawyers everywhere,” Wilson said. “There’s good ones, too.”

In rural areas, attorneys can’t hide poor work and have to strive for excellence to keep the reputation that’s everything in their business, he said.

He moved to Harrisville, where some family members lived, to get his kids out of the city, he said, as the local school bus dropped his children off at his office.

He also chose the location because he knew it represented unmet demand, and that it offered a place for him to do important work that would help people.

He misses some of the amenities of a big city and wishes he could go to a movie theater, but he likes small-town work and plans to stick around.

Enticing others to join him could be a tough sell, Wilson acknowledged.

But, if it’s a good fit, you’re going to stick around, he said, his children peeking through a doorway and giggling at their dad.

Sure, Wilson admitted, his friends from law school have made partner and earn big bucks.

But, he said, “I don’t know if their quality of life is as good as mine.”

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