By Emily G. Sims
Covington County, Alabama, a quaint yet inviting area near the Florida line, is where I spent the summer before my final year of law school at the University of Alabama. With a population of 37,000, Covington County would perhaps appear to be an unusual location to fully maximize early professional connections and final pregraduation experience. However, summer 2022 in that rural community was more valuable than any job a big city could have afforded me.
Although overlooked by many aspiring attorneys, small-town law practice can be a rewarding and fulfilling career. The Finch Initiative at the University of Alabama School of Law aims to convey just that. Named after the lead character in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the Finch Initiative provides law students the opportunity to spend part of their summer working with a judge in a rural Alabama community.
The objective of the program is to immerse law students into the life of a small-town lawyer and hopefully facilitate unexplored enthusiasm for a similar professional path. Having grown up in a rural area, I have always appreciated all that a small town has to offer; therefore, the Finch Initiative appealed to me from the start.
Indeed, the initiative achieved its purpose. At the end of my first week in Covington County, Circuit Judge Ben Bowden had arranged for us to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, to watch local actors bring Harper Lee’s novel to life. I left the play with a sense of anticipation and pride for the possible accomplishments a dedicated small-town lawyer can achieve.
During my time as a Finch fellow, those feelings intensified as I was able to gain invaluable exposure to the practice of law in a rural community. Prior to last summer, I had little experience in the courtroom and even less knowledge of the impact lawyers can make in small towns. I was able to observe proceedings with differing degrees of importance and attorneys with varying skills and approaches. As an inherently curious person, this proved to be a fascinating virtue of the fellowship.
Through all the variability, however, a distinct theme remained: The life of a small-town lawyer is never private and is always constant. I observed local attorneys interact with citizens in courtrooms, at lunches and even at local sporting events. In a community where there is such an ease with which genuine relationships are formed, members of the legal community have a great opportunity to create positive outlooks on the legal system. By exemplifying devoted and sincere advocacy, small-town lawyers can influence community ideals by their daily actions, and in succession, a community grows its faith in the legal system.
Last summer, I had a firsthand seat to witness judges and lawyers manifest patience, passion and persistence inside and outside of the courtroom, contributing to uplifting interactions between citizens and the legal system. I experienced the celebration of a long-awaited adoption of a child in the foster system and the successful compromise of two estranged individuals for the benefit of their shared children. In some instances, the interaction with an attorney was the individual’s first experience with the legal system or community. I witnessed a couple being guided through the closing of their first home and a man welcomed to Covington County after moving from across the country.
As is often the case, however, an individual’s involvement with the legal system can be difficult and consequential. I observed a mother frightened for her child’s health during a mental competency hearing and numerous local elders seeking protection from abuse by neighbors, acquaintances and even family members. I saw judges display empathy for individuals when the law did not provide recourse for their situations and attorneys explain impending prison sentences to criminal defendants. Although many proceedings were emotionally taxing, successful small-town lawyers knew how to navigate their clients’ circumstances and effectively provide guidance.
Following court cases, Judge Bowden and I discussed the arguments presented, policy rationales behind a given law and ways to better assist the community. Our conversations facilitated various projects to improve the legal profession and the surrounding area. In addition to researching and writing about legal issues, I compiled information for the subsequent education of local attorneys on how to approach future questions of ethical concern, new avenues to display evidence at trial and different methods to research case law and statutes.
With a focus toward the community, I modified and expanded a prior Finch fellow’s initial work on a video that will guide pro se litigants through the legal system. With a step-by-step instruction of the civil process, community members who cannot afford to hire an attorney will have a greater likelihood of understanding and advocating for their positions.
My experience as a Finch fellow has furthered my desire to practice law in a rural area. There is no greater contribution to society than the ability and opportunity to help another. The legal profession bestows a vast avenue for helping people of all backgrounds; however, working in the legal field permits a deeper involvement in smaller communities.
The direct and personal connection with fellow citizens allows for sincere representation of individuals through every stressful, exciting and monumental occasion in their lives. Rural communities provide numerous opportunities for meaningful service. The Finch Initiative has exhibited those possibilities and shown me how to be a skilled champion for future clients. Following graduation, I look forward to a career devoted to serving, encouraging, and benefiting the area that I will call home.
After receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama, Emily G. Sims had the opportunity to stay at UA for law school. At UA School of Law, she is a member of the Bench & Bar Legal Honor Society and the Moot Court Board; co-chair of the 2023 Moot Court Competition; executive editor of the Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review; president and co-founder of the Alabama Anti-Trafficking Legal Advocacy Society; and on the Public Interest Student Board. She will graduate in May.
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