South Bend, Pacific County
BY COLIN RIGLEY
It’s a brisk Tuesday morning in South Bend and the main 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, quashing warrants, and possible probation violations.
The Pacific County Courthouse sits atop a hill that offers wide views of the Willapa River, which bleeds into Willapa Bay and then out into 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.”
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.”11 www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/travel/30bites.html. A little farther up Highway 101, which serves as the main thoroughfare through 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 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 member of the Bar in private practice in Pacific County, you have a 40 percent chance of ending up with Betsy or another member of the Penoyar family.
The self-proclaimed “world’s largest oyster,” and Penoyar Law Offices, both located in downtown South Bend.
“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 judicial 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 snaking down the south-facing windows. 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 23,000 residents. There are several lawyers in south Pacific County, but that’s an hour away from the county seat of South Bend.
“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 Penoyar 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 Offices, where he has mostly worked in property law—which tapped into his childhood love of maps and put his undergraduate degree in cartography to use.
Including Will, Betsy and Joel are parents to three lawyers and two doctors. The youngest 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 urban school. 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 lawyers in 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 those few lawyers means there simply are not enough legal minds in the area to take on the caseload.
The Pacific County Courthouse sits atop a hill that offers wide views of the Willapa River. A duck pond and covered footbridge that lies to the east of the courthouse parking lot.
For the Penoyars, like many other rural attorneys, specializing in a specific area of law is not sustainable. When a potential client walks through the door with a legal problem, they know that there are few, if any, other options for that person in terms of lawyers to help. 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 residents finding legal help locally and having to travel out of the county. In fact, one of the reasons Betsy joined the WSBA Small Town and Rural (STAR) Committee22 www.wsba.org/connect-serve/committees-boards-other-groups/small-town-and-rural-committee. was to attract new blood to the area.
“I thought if only 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, who 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. Still, 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 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.”
“There’s more of a motivation than being a mechanical billing machine,” Ed adds.
Both Will and Ed say they regularly run into their clients when they’re out and about in town. 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.
- Population: 23,365
- County seat: South Bend
- Largest city: Raymond
- The region around Willapa Bay provides one quarter of the annual oyster harvest in the U.S.
Free Career Center listings for law jobs in rural areas
In an effort to increase awareness among WSBA members about employment opportunities in rural parts of the state, the WSBA is offering free 30-day postings on its Career Center of jobs for legal professionals in rural areas, defined for purposes of the free postings as: “any job not in Thurston, Clark, Pierce, King, Snohomish, Spokane, and Whatcom counties, WITH the proviso that if the job is in a town of 5,000 or less within said county, it may also be posted for free.” To determine eligibility for a free posting, please contact email@example.com with “RURAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY” in the subject line.