Go Rural, Young Lawyer!

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In tough economic times like these, some new lawyers may want to open their minds to a different type of risk and go west — or north, or south, or east — to find a job beyond their urban dreams.

I met with a lawyer a couple of weeks ago in a small town about two hours outside of the Twin Cities. Our conversation turned to operating a law firm in a small town and the lawyer told me two things I probably knew but did not really appreciate. One was a complaint about how difficult it is to attract new lawyers to join law firms in rural areas. The other was the lawyer’s prediction that in the next ten years, half the lawyers in her quarter of the state were going to retire from the practice of law.

RelatedNew Graduate taking over an existing [rural] law firm

That prediction probably is not unique to Minnesota. New lawyers unable to find a job in a major American city may want to broaden their job searches beyond their local beltways.

There are many benefits to practicing in a smaller community. First off, there is plenty of work to do. All those farms you pass as you drive that two-lane road into the country? That farmland is worth several thousand dollars an acre in many areas. Those farm families need estate plans, contracts, and business advice. There are teachers, small business owners, bankers, and other professionals as well. The folk in small towns sometimes get divorced, commit the occasional DWI, and get in car accidents. They need local lawyers and they do not want to pay for some lawyer from the city to drive out to the rural courthouse to represent them. They need trusted advisors they can form life-long professional relationships with. That could be you.

Not sure what area of practice is best for you? In small towns, many lawyers are generalists. They take a variety of cases and get experience in multiple areas. Eager to get inside a courtroom? You may get more opportunities in a small town than you would as an associate in the big city.

The economics can work as well. The cost of housing may be less than half of what you would find in a major city. Your mortgage could be so small that even with your law school debt you would have less overall debt than you would have living in the city.

I know, you could never give up the city. You would miss the theater, even though you only go once or twice a year. Where would you shop? (Although you do most of your shopping online nowadays.) A small town only has one movie theater! (Of course, you stream most of the movies you see through Netflix.) These fears of cultural isolation may be just that — fears. The lawyer I met with told me that she and her colleagues are simply more intentional about going to the city for entertainment and probably do so more than city-folk. Many people in the city think nothing of traveling three hours each way in the summer to go up to the family cabin; rural residents just do a “reverse commute” to attend sporting events, concerts, and other big city attractions. I have a client who lives 2½ hours from Minneapolis and has seasons tickets to the Minnesota Twins.

Granted, there are some impediments. If you are single, it may be harder to find a mate in a smaller community. Even if you are married, your spouse may not be able to find suitable work in the same area.  But rural lawyers love to tell you how nice it is to raise children in a small town, where they can ride their bikes to every friend’s house and you know the parents of all of their playmates.

Quite frankly, rural lawyers probably do not want you to just show up for two or three years and then pack your bags and go back to the city. But there is always the possibility that once you get out to the country, you might like it and stay. There is risk in any venture, whether it is joining a big firm or starting your own practice. In tough economic times like these, some new lawyers may want to open their minds to a different type of risk and go west — or north, or south, or east — to find a job beyond their urban dreams.

This was originally published on September 7, 2010, but it seems equally relevant in 2014.

Featured image: “Main Street and Old Common Road sign in autumn” from Shutterstock.

Legal Careers, Starting a Law Firm

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  • http://mattlegal.com/ Cindi Spence Matt

    I have been practicing in a small town for 15 years now and I love it. I’m lucky because it’s close enough to the metro area that I have all the benefits of the city, but also have all the luxuries of small-town practice.

    One word of advice for those that may be looking for a job in a small town: Put something in your cover letter to tell the Hiring Firm why you are interested in, and committed to, living/working in their small town. The Hiring Firm wants to know you are in it for the long term, and that they won’t just waste their resources in training you in, only to have you quit in a year when a better opportunity comes along at Big Firm in Big City.

    Cindi
    http://www.mattlegal.com

  • http://yourcornwalllawyer.com/ Michele Allinotte

    I have worked in two small communities in Ontario, Canada, for most of my career and I recently opened a solo firm in my home town. I live on a 50 acre farm on a private road and my commute is 30 minutes (more if I have to wait for the cows to cross the road – yes, that was not a typo).

    Although I do live on a farm, I don’t consider my community that rural. I live an hour’s drive from Ottawa, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec, which is less than the morning commute for many of you who live in metropolitan areas.

    I feel like working in a smaller community has given me and my family a great quality of life and has given me the opportunity to do great quality legal work.

    But, it is difficult to attract new lawyers to smaller communities. This is going to become an access to justice issue very soon, as it is already difficult for local residents in my area to find lawyers who are taking on new clients in the areas of child protection, family law and criminal law.

    I encourage new (and not so new) lawyers to consider the practice of law outside of a big city. I do agree with Cindi, though, if you are looking to move to my community and work for me, I’m going to want to know you are in it for the long haul.

  • AlliG

    I’m all for small towns, but I’m not sure you’re right about the economics. I grew up in a very small town and considered going small again early in my career. The salary potential just wasn’t there when I factored in student debt. And I graduated in 2003 so my debt is probably, what? $50,000 less than current grads?

  • …..

    I’m now getting 20ish job posting emails a day, including two from law school postings — and I never, ever see postings for these smaller firms. Maybe they’re not too tech savvy (so no internet postings on bar association web sites or other places that’d get picked up by something like indeed.com), or they’re not too connected to local law schools … but I just don’t see them!

    “The other was the lawyer’s prediction that in the next ten years, half the lawyers in her quarter of the state were going to retire from the practice of law. ”

    I wish this would happen now — it’d certainly help the legal job market. If only the ABA could give some perks for early retirement or something, instead of actively destroying young people’s finances by opening up 20 new law schools a week.

  • Jerod Tufte

    I practice in a small community in North Dakota. The post is dead on. There are several communities in North Dakota that I can think of off the top of my head that have no lawyer due to a recent retirement or a lawyer ready to retire. It’s not so much that a new law grad would join a firm as simply rent some office space and hang out a shingle. If you could overlap with a lawyer about to retire to get some career mentoring, that’d be nice, but don’t over pay for a firm as a going concern when you’re going to get a lot of those clients anyway. Many small firms in my area likely don’t have the economics to take a chance on someone unknown and offer a salary that would attract many people. By the same token, a lawyer willing to be more of a generalist and handle family law, small business, estate planning, and real estate transactions can find plenty of work to do.

    • Chelsea

      Hi–I’d love to work in a small town in North Dakota. I’m having trouble using craigslist/Internet to find those jobs. Can you tell me how to find the small town jobs/firms? Thank so much–I really appreciate your assistance.

      Chelsea

  • SagatAdon

    Hmmm, moving to a small town and setting up shop may work in theory. But what about the impending lawyer outsourcing that’s bound to arrive and make practice law in the US all that much harder for new young lawyers everywhere: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/09/03/outsourcing-lawyers-leaving-is-here-to-stay/

    Can’t stop progress, I guess…

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    That is not a problem unique to small towns. Actually, practicing in a small town is probably safer, since location is part of the reason your clients are in your office in the first place.

  • Amy Fowler

    I have lived in a smallish town (about 22,000 people) about an hour from the Twin Cities for 9 years now. My husband got a nice job here and brought me and our two daughters with him. We have a great property with horses and a vineyard. I did the long commute to my cushy job in St. Paul for 4 years on a half-time basis before deciding I needed to find a career I could do in a small town. I decided to go to law school. I graduated, passed the bar, and had an offer to join a nice small-town firm. The offer fell through. The firm does not have enough work to add another person. I decided to do a full job search. The public defender jobs have been extremely tight. They have had to lay off veterans. A nice prosecutor position had 150 applicants. A law clerk position had 100 applicants. Long-time solo practitioners are scrambling for work. I have decided to go back to my big-city line of work where there are still plentiful jobs that pay more than twice what a local law position would. Sorry to sound negative, I wish the article had been true for me.

  • http://www.svslawoffice.com Shawn Vogt Sween

    I am just now starting up a law practice in a small, rural town that has previously not had a lawyer. Many of the surrounding farming communities also have no local lawyer. I am finding most of the points in the article to ring true, especially because my practice will be catering to farmers, many of whom have had a hard time finding counsel in larger cities who want to handle agricultural cases. It’s true that I plan to handle a variety of general legal matters for local folks, but I also see opportunities for rural lawyers to use technology attract business from throughout the state.

    Part of my marketing plan included purchasing and renovating a historic building on the corner of Main Street and Grand Ave. After extensive renovations that took almost a year (yes, this was a long-term plan), my building is finished and a real conversation-starter in this rural community. My family and I live upstairs, I have a gorgeous office downstairs, and my monthly office + housing costs will be less than rents for comparable offices (not including the cost of housing) in the same town.

    I will admit that my husband and I grew up in this town, so the pull to rural Minnesota and Grand Meadow in particular was strong for us. We couldn’t be happier with the decision to open a rural practice.

  • http://rurallawyer.com Bruce Cameron

    Rural lawyering jobs are typically found in one of two ways – word of mouth or opening your own firm. Most rural firms want to know that you have some connection with the community and have enough interest in the community to make the necessary personal contacts. The work is going to be small law and general (a real estate closing today, a DUI tomorrow and a family matter next week), will pay a liveable wage, and is definitely out there.

  • http://FlusterCucked.blogspot.com Frank the Underemployed Professional

    Cooperstein’s post was just eviscerated in a blog post at the Scammed Hard! blog. I hope that Mr. Cooperstein will respond to it. You can find it here:

    http://scammedhard.blogspot.com/2010/09/report-rural-areas-positively-brimming.html

  • hz

    I am a 2nd year associate in a small law firm about 2 hours outside of Chicago. It absolutely sucks. The work itself is interesting and occasionally busy, but if you are of the school that believes in having friends and seeing more than one educated person in their 20s/30s each day, then the rural setting will not work.

    We all have to look out for ourselves and, frankly, I can’t wait to find another position or hang out my shingle in the big city.

    However, if you DO have a family, are of white european ancestry like most of rural America, and don’t mind not interacting or making friends with the young and bright minds that are flocking to the city, then you would have a good time. Yes, I can afford a decent 3 bedroom in a nice safe neighborhood here, but I’d rather hole up in a small apartment and have access to the energy, creativity and top notch public institutions. I do understand the economics, but this is my reality!

  • Stephanie

    Hi, Just curious what you consider the best approach to find these smaller firm jobs. I am a 1L Western Student wanting to move to a small town after I graduate just not sure how to approach them regarding a Summer position.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  • Paul Spitz

    All these comments are 4 years old. It would be great to hear updates from the people, even better if all the updates are positive.

  • Paralegal Connection

    It’s interesting that this article was posted because I’m taking a course in just that – rural community lawyering. What we’re doing can be done by anyone else interested in starting their own practice. We’ve identified rural counties; and have been speaking with attorneys, judges, community leaders, businesses, etc. to determine what areas of law are needed but not being practiced in those communities. We’re also pinpointing any areas with an overflow of clients. The response we’ve received has been warm and many people have been incredibly forthcoming. I’ve even had an attorney offer to do whatever he can to help me find a job after graduation. Long story short, doing some leg work and making personal contacts in rural communities may get you much further and prevent you from jumping head first into a shallow pool.

  • http://jrwilliamslaw.com/why-jrw-law JRW

    Where would you get a haircut if you’re Black? (Although you’re already going bald). Where would you shop for ingredients for the traditional Mexican recipe your mom brought with her when she immigrated from Mexico? (Although you enjoy cheeseburgers). This post is symptomatic of the White Privilege that permeates our profession in that the author–a leader in the Minnesota legal community–fails to address the concerns of minorities thinking about “going rural.”

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Help me understand what you think is missing from this post. Because it sounds like you’ve got as many inaccurate stereotypes about rural communities as you seem to think they have about minorities.

      • http://jrwilliamslaw.com/why-jrw-law JRW

        Sam, thanks for your reply, which only underscores my point. If you (or your readers) don’t understand why, I doubt there is anything I can say to help you get it.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          If you don’t take the time to explain, we never will get it.

    • Paul Spitz

      Well, there are a great many rural Hispanic communities in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. I’m sure there are a great many rural Black communities in southeastern states. Not all rural communities are white people in South Dakota.

    • Courtney Humphrey

      I’m confused as well. I’m black. I practice in many rural parishes…in Louisiana. Perhaps it’s different in different states but I find that the minority is usually most predominant in rural parishes. No matter, there are blacks in rural communities. They probably cut their own hair….and watch Netflix. It ain’t that serious.

  • Your mistake.

    Sounds like you didn’t do a very good job researching the firm you were going to, which would seem an essential component of any job search, big or small, metro or rural.

  • Terrijd

    My father and uncle had a small town practice in North Carolina and were the pillars of the community. They loved their practice and did quite well. I grew up to leave home and practice in the city because of the issues with being single in a small town. However new lawyers will families should consider the benefits of a small town life. Your article is very accurate. My father and uncle passed away and their office will soon close if some young lawyer doesn’t come along to continue the firm. I called the law school placement office at my former law school to make them aware of the opportunity but no responses….. so sad.

    • Richard Wilson

      I’m a 2L at Wake looking to start a practice with a 2L at Charlotte after graduation. I would love to talk to you or your family about this opportunity.

  • http://cgsuslaw.com/ Susan Goodwin

    Some people think the life of an attorney/lawyer comes easy. It’s really not as easy as they seem to think. You could be a great law person but not have many people recommendations, or you might just not have the client base to make a difference in how many people can see you. Sometimes it only takes one big case, and a lot of coverage for a complete career change. Good luck to everyone out!