In the United States, the term country lawyer or county-seat lawyer may be applied to identify an attorney living and practicing primarily in a rural area or town, or an attorney pursuing a legal practice that displays certain (potentially idealized) hallmarks of rural or small-town legal practice. In such areas, the county seat is likely to be an important center of government and home to the county courthouse, the forum for local criminal trials and civil litigation. The legal community may be small and close-knit (at the extreme, with only a few attorneys, all of whom know each other, and all of whom may be personally known to the community), and each individual attorney may handle a wide variety of legal matters as local needs dictate. Historically, such an attorney may have been more likely to have joined the bar by reading law rather than attending school, and in modern times may have (or may be assumed to have) graduated from a lower tier legal program.
Consequently, the term carries with it certain connotations - both pejorative and complimentary - regarding the attorney's education, economic status, and even moral stature. The term may be applied to one's self, where it may indicate self-deprecation or humility. The term may also be used to describe a person who at one time practiced law in a humble setting, and later went on to do other things but (presumably) remained influenced by the country lawyer experience in later life and work.
In contrast, a city lawyer or big city lawyer would work in an urban area, one of many thousands of other attorneys specializing in a single practice area, possibly the graduate of an expensive and prestigious law school and the member of a law firm, potentially responsible to corporate clients whom she has never met in person, and, like most urban denizens, not personally acquainted with most of the other people living nearby. This term, too (especially "big city lawyer"), may carry pejorative connotations.
According to Francis Lyman Windolph in his 1938 book The Country Lawyer, the term turns more on the general nature of the attorney's practice than on the locality in which he practices:
- Now the true test of the country lawyer is not the size or importance of the community in which he does his work, but rather the sort of work which he does and the sort of people for whom he does it. [...] If a lawyer performs every sort of legal service for every sort of client – the poor and the lowly as well as the rich and the well born – he is, within my definition at least, a country lawyer, and no arbitrary distinction based on density of population or the like can make him anything else.
Robert H. Jackson offered his own description in his 1950 essay "The County-Seat Lawyer", focused both on the attorney's education and social values:
- He 'read law' in the Commentaries of Blackstone and Kent and not by the case system. He resolved problems by what he called “first principles.” He did not specialize, nor did he pick and choose clients. He rarely declined service to worthy ones because of inability to pay. [...] He never quit. He could think of motions for every purpose under the sun, and he made them all. [...] The law to him was like a religion, and its practice was more than a means of support; it was a mission. He was not always popular in his community, but he was respected. [...] He “lived well, worked hard, and died poor.” Often his name was in a generation or two forgotten. It was from this brotherhood that America has drawn its statesmen and its judges.
The country lawyer's image - and mythology - has become that of advocate and protector of the common man. Notable American examples include:
- Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), frontier lawyer (1787–1796), 7th U.S. President (1829–1837)
- Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), prairie lawyer, 16th U.S. President (1861–1865),
- Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union
- Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), country lawyer (1897–1916), Massachusetts State Legislator (1907-1908), Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts (1910-1911), Massachusetts State Senator (1912-1915), President of the Massachusetts State Senate (1914-1915), Lt. Governor of Massachusetts (1916-1919), Governor of Massachusetts (1919-1921), U.S. Vice-President (1921-1923), 30th U.S. President (1923–1929)
- Robert H. Jackson (1892–1954), last U.S. Supreme Court justice (1941–1954) not to have graduated from law school, chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials (1945–1946).
- Sam Ervin (1896–1985), civil liberties advocate and Democratic U.S. Senator (1954–1974), and leading member of Congressional committees involved in discrediting McCarthy in 1954 and Nixon in 1974. (Ervin eventually graduated from Harvard Law School three years after being admitted to the bar, but still self-identified as "a simple country lawyer".)
- Strom Thurmond (1902–2003), Edgefield (South Carolina) Town and County Attorney (1930–1938), Circuit Judge, Governor of South Carolina (1947–1951), United States Senator (1956–2003), Presidential Candidate (1948).
Notable Canadian examples include:
- John A. Macdonald (1815–1891), 1st Prime Minister of Canada (1867–1873)
- John Sparrow David Thompson (1845–1894), 4th Prime Minister of Canada (1892–1894)
- Robert Borden (1854–1937), 9th Prime Minister of Canada (1911–1920)
The "simple country lawyer" has become a recognizable archetype in the media. In common depictions, the lawyer may speak with an exaggerated rural or (non-rhotic) southern accent and is always ready to admit – usually as part of a charming speech – that he is not as well-educated as his opponent, the big city attorney. His dress is simple and appropriate, but never flashy – usually he wears a white linen suit and a dark tie. He is courteous, modest, and polite, and sometimes re-words difficult testimony in a way that the “plain folks” of the jury will understand. This behavior can have the dual effect of endearing himself to his peers and distancing overly intellectual witnesses called by the opposition. Despite these characteristics, however, the “simple country lawyer” is almost always a shrewd litigator who knows the law very well.
Examples may be found in Anatomy of a Murder, My Cousin Vinnie, A Time to Kill, Matlock, and Futurama. The character of District Attorney Jim Garrison uses elements of the simple country lawyer in the courtroom in JFK. Charles Laughton played a variation on the character – though it was that of a US Senator – in the film Advise and Consent.
- See Donald & Dinning, City Lawyer/Country Lawyer (Alabama example).
- For example, Obituary of George M. Michaels, New York Times (Dec. 5, 1992) ("Former Assemblyman George M. Michaels, who cast the deciding vote to liberalize New York's abortion law in 1970, thereby ending his political career, died on Thursday at his home in Auburn, N.Y. . . . 'I found myself caught up in something bigger than I am,' Mr. Michaels said about his agonizing decision. 'I'm just a small country lawyer.' . . . Mr. Michaels was born in College Point, Queens, and graduated from Cornell University. He received his law degree from Brooklyn Law School before going into practice in Auburn.").
- See, for example, Obituary of John Doar, New York Times ("John Doar, a country lawyer from northern Wisconsin who led the federal government’s on-the-ground efforts to dismantle segregation in the South . . . died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan.")
- Windolph, Francis Lyman (1938). The Country Lawyer: Essays in Democracy, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1938; Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press (Ayer Co. Pub.), 1970 (ISBN 0-8369-1638-7, pp. 1–2). For a similar usage, see The Lawyer’s Apprentice: How to Learn the Law Without Law School, New York Times (July 30, 2014) ("Unburdened by school loan debt, he said, he has been able to become 'a country lawyer,' taking on work like speeding tickets, divorce and wills.")
- Jackson, Robert H. (1950). "The County-Seat Lawyer", originally appeared at 36 ABA Journal 487, reprinted at the Robert H. Jackson Center, roberthjackson.org.