A Small-Town Lawyer’s Perspective
The advantages of being a “big fish” in the (not so) small pond of Brentwood
I first started my practice in Brentwood in 2013, after over 20 years working in large firms in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I had moved to Brentwood in 2012 when I met Amy Alvis, a family law attorney already working in Brentwood. My decision to “come home” was made easier when together Amy and I created Alvis Quashnock and Associates, a “small town firm” offering family law, business, real estate, estate planning and civil litigation services to the community of Brentwood and surrounding areas. At that time there were probably a dozen attorneys practicing law in Brentwood and the nearby towns of Oakley and Discovery Bay. We were the largest (and perhaps only) law firm in Brentwood, with a grand total of four attorneys.
Things have changed a lot since then. New housing developments in Brentwood have been encroaching on the beautiful rolling hills, corn fields and fruit orchards which typically come to mind when you think of Brentwood. New small businesses and restaurants catering to the new inhabitants have dovetailed on this residential expansion. There are now more attorneys and law firms in Brentwood too. But Brentwood has not lost its small-town charm and agricultural roots (no pun intended), which makes it a unique and advantageous place to practice law.
There are a lot of practical benefits to living and working as a lawyer in Brentwood: lower cost of living, minimal commute to work (thank goodness for Court Call) and a slower pace of living. The offices of Alvis Quashnock and Associates are located in a modest two-story building in downtown Brentwood which has about eight square blocks and two stop lights. Because a lot of my clients are local farmers and business owners, or residents who commute elsewhere for work, my hours tend to be different than the typical urban attorney. I am always at work by 7 am and I leave at 5 pm nearly every day, unless there is a deadline or some other urgent project. It is not unusual for me to work on Saturdays as well, when things are quiet — except for the bustling Brentwood farmer’s market right outside my office. I enjoy catching up on work and meeting clients who can’t make it in during the week due to long commutes. In return, I get the satisfaction of knowing my clients appreciate the flexibility and not having to travel “over the hill” (i.e. Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill) to see an attorney. We often get thank you cards, chocolates and wine from our clients, as well as delicious crates of cherries and bags of sweet corn from our “ag” clients.
Another allure of being an attorney in a small town like Brentwood is that you know everyone (or nearly everyone) and there is a sense of belonging to the community that can be quite satisfying. Sometimes I’m the “family lawyer” for different generations of farmers and business owners. I love driving past my clients’ businesses and homes in Brentwood, confident in the knowledge that I am able to give folks the legal voice that many don’t have. There is a strong sense of cohesiveness with your neighbors when you are on a first-name basis with the local bagel shop, hair salon, auto repair shop, mortgage broker, real estate firm or the person standing in front of you at the bank or Safeway. It really is a privilege to help people here in Brentwood to solve problems, settle their disputes and go on with their lives.
Obviously practicing law in a small town like Brentwood is not perfect and there are practical downsides. I don’t make anything close to what partners earn in big San Francisco firms, but so what? The bread and butter of my real estate and civil litigation practice tends to be a steady stream of small business owners, farmers or other ag clients, and individual residents. My partner’s estate planning practice is thriving with clients from the local 55+ retirement communities in Brentwood. Our firm is doing very well juggling a large number of clients with small matters rather than concentrate on large blocks of litigation or transactional work.
That being said, you should not discount the large businesses in Brentwood, most importantly in the agricultural industry. The recent housing development boom in Brentwood has not erased the rich farming heritage of this community. The City of Brentwood is active in negotiating conservation easements with local farms to preserve hundreds of acres of farmland in perpetuity. As a result, I expect that many of my Brentwood clients will continue to be farmers and agricultural related businesses for many years to come.
The most significant downside people typically associate with being a Brentwood practitioner is the sense of distance and isolation from the rest of the Bay Area. While I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, there are times when the drive out to Martinez, Walnut Creek, Oakland or San Francisco can be a drag. One way I have tried to overcome this sense of detachment is to get involved with the CCCBA and make connections with other attorneys, community leaders, businesses, etc. The recent widening of the Highway 4 corridor and the new BART extension to Antioch have made travel much easier on those days when I have to make an in-person appearance for a court date or mediation.
Improvements in technology have made practicing law easier in Brentwood as well, with many courts allowing /requiring fax, or e-filing and telephonic appearances by counsel.
Lastly, there is the perception, among some members of the bar and the bench, that small town attorneys are mediocre and sloppy. To some extent, this is a reputation that some “bad apples” in the local bar have earned. But it is frustrating when attorneys from the “big city” like Sacramento or San Francisco think that they are superior to me simply because I chose to practice in a small town like Brentwood. The only thing I can do is prove them wrong in my legal writing and in the court room.
During my career, I had the opportunity to work in large urban firms and travel to cosmopolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, for large institutional or multinational companies in connection with multi-million dollar cases. However, I don’t regret my decision to become a small town practitioner in my home town of Brentwood. My commute is exactly five minutes, down O’Hara to Brentwood Boulevard and left at Chestnut. Sometimes for fun, I change it up and go a different way . . . the commute is still five minutes. A recent thank you card which we posted on our firm’s Facebook page sums up what it means for me to be an attorney in a small town like this. “Brentwood is a magical city. I’m so lucky to have worked with you because of my dear dad and mom. They were very happy all the years they had to enjoy and your help made it better for them.” Knowing that I have had a real impact on the lives of others makes it all worthwhile.