03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Small Town Values in a Big Time Lawyer

Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

- John Mellencamp

For all my adult life, I've assisted trial attorneys with structured settlements. I've worked with big names in big cities but the best seem to come from small towns.

Like James (J.T.) Gilbert, in my hometown of Richmond Kentucky. J.T. is the kind of lawyer every small town should have. He spent 18 years as Chair of the Board of Regents at Eastern Kentucky University and longer as city attorney for the neighboring city of Berea. Along the way, he became one of the nation's top trial lawyers. He is President-elect of the Kentucky Justice Association.

Next week, in Boston, he will be inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers. The American College of Trial Lawyers is a big time deal. Its membership can never be more than 1% of the attorneys in any state or province. Its membership includes big stars and big hitters. And a small town lawyer from Kentucky.

Kentucky has its share of big time rural lawyers. Sam Davies in Barbourville and Richard Hay in Somerset are two of the best injury attorneys the nation has ever produced.

The big cities, and their big populations, are well represented but it's easy to see why small town lawyers make it to the top.

It's like Mr. Mellencamp said, "People in small towns can be who they want to be."

The dynamics of a small town are perfecting for developing skills that make someone a a top notch trial lawyer. Small town juries won't allow you to pull the stunts that you see on Boston Legal or in the O.J. Simpson trial. They won't tolerate a lot of flash and showboating. That sort of behavior will hurt, not help, a client.

Depending on your perspective, there is good and bad to small towns. Everyone knows everything about everybody. It's like a scaled down version of Facebook except you don't get to choose the news that is posted.

Outside of President Obama and Theodore Roosevelt, almost all United States presidents grew up in small towns. I don't think that is an accident. Small communities develop a sense of service and a work ethic that people distant from their neighbors don't have.

Small town values can exist in any geographic area. People from places like Brooklyn and the south side of Chicago often have the sense of community that small town Kentuckians have.

It could be that President Obama is a small town guy after all. He grew up in Hawaii and other places but his early adulthood on the south side of Chicago is where he found a "small town" environment that embraced him.

I might be making too much of the big town-small town thing. I've spent most of my life dealing with Wall Street types and I'm often the only small town person in the room. I've gotten remarks about my accent and whether I grew up with running water. (I grew up in a Cincinnati suburb with an in-ground swimming pool in the backyard.) There are three ways to react to snobbery. One is to feel inferior. The second is to rise above it and outperform the people putting you down. The third is to just ignore it and live your life the way you want to live it.

I think J.T. Gilbert took the third route. He goes at life with the determination to make a difference. He's also just a genuinely nice guy. You want him to be your neighbor and I was in a sense. For seven years, I rented the office building next to his law firm.

I could talk to him on a regular basis and appreciated his reasoning and insights. I trusted him to be the executor for my will. My family knows if I drop tomorrow, to get ahold of J.T. and start making arrangements.

Like John Mellencamp, I'll probably die in a small town and probably where they will bury me.

People like J.T. Gilbert are the reason I stay here.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is one of the world's leading authorities in helping people deal with "Big Money" issues.

McNay is an award winning, syndicated financial columnist and Huffington Post Contributor.

You can read more about Don at

McNay founded McNay Settlement Group, a structured settlement and financial consulting firm, in 1983 and Kentucky Guardianship Administrators LLC in 2000. You can read more about both at

McNay has Master's Degrees from Vanderbilt and the American College and is in the Eastern Kentucky University Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

McNay has written two books. Most recent is Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win The Lottery

McNay is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Round Table and has four professional designations in the financial services field.