How To Become A Small Town Lawyer

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.

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.


  1. 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.


  2. 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.

    • Avatar Stephanie says:

      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!

  3. Avatar AlliG says:

    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?

  4. Avatar ..... says:

    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, 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.

  5. Avatar Jerod Tufte says:

    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.

    • Avatar Chelsea says:

      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.


      • Avatar Pamela Kennedy says:

        You have to physically show up in North Dakota. They probably won’t talk to you over the phone because they will ASSUME you’re not willing to GO there let alone live there. Reference my aforementioned problem with Grants, New Mexico. And that’s in NEW MEXICO up in the mountains where the weather is NICE.

    • Avatar Pamela Kennedy says:

      Yes, but would they take a Native American woman? I rest my case.

  6. Avatar SagatAdon says:

    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:

    Can’t stop progress, I guess…

  7. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    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.

  8. Avatar Amy Fowler says:

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

    • Avatar Pamela Kennedy says:

      Damn right. I applied online for this organization that says it places people in positions sort of representing children who have been taken away from their parents (due to drug use, abuse, etc, in the home), and in the telephone interview which came pretty much RIGHT AWAY they actually had the nerve to ask “why do you want to come here.” Really, Grants, New Mexico – that’s how you GET people to come there?! Actually I had been under the impression that the placement was in Gallup not Grants, because Gallup is Western New Mexico’s “hub” and has offices of all kinds of rural teacher, doctor, lawyer, nurse, engineer, etc, professionals (Teach for America, etc., for the state is located there and not in the state capital).

      Even when I was THERE I would get asked that kind of rubbish by people once they saw me. “What’d you come HERE for.” Gallup wasn’t like that. If I’d tell people I was there to teach Math they’d ask “what school” sort of thing, not take the attitude that I shouldn’t have come there at all (like Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Espanola and Taos…and Raton…)

      My point is, some of these small towns in the middle of nowhere, want to keep themselves without professionals because they want “locals only.” Problem is, their “locals” don’t qualify for those professions because of heavy incidences of alcohol and/or drug abuse, criminal records, domestic violence, gang activity, etc, and the resulting lack of being able to pass the background check (criminal record part) of most professional licensure application processes.

      Now all that remains is for me to take my law degree and find a state or territory in which Bar Admission doesn’t check your damn CREDIT and I’m all set….so that’s why my aforementioned comment about living my life as a freelance closed-captioning typist for the Deaf until I can get fluent enough in ASL to qualify as an ASL interpreter. (THAT field doesn’t check your credit for licensure!)

  11. Avatar Frank the Underemployed Professional says:

    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:

  12. Avatar hz says:

    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!

    • Avatar Ruined My Life says:

      Spot on. Maybe we can hang out. I’ll hit you up over Skype … that is, when my internet connection is working. Better hope there’s not rain!

  13. Avatar Paul Spitz says:

    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.

  14. Avatar Paralegal Connection says:

    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.

  15. Avatar JRW says:

    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.”

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      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.

      • Avatar JRW says:

        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.

        • Avatar Sam Glover says:

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

          All Eric said was that there are jobs for lawyers in rural communities. That’s not self-evidently racially, culturally, or ethnically (or other -ly) insensitive to me, so I need you to explain it.

    • Avatar Paul Spitz says:

      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.

      • Avatar Pamela Kennedy says:

        The rural communities in New Mexico are whites, amigo.

        • Avatar Paul Spitz says:

          Really? Have you told them? Because they are under the impression that they are the descendants of the Spanish explorers that came to the Americas 500 years ago. They even have Spanish surnames, and many of them speak Spanish. They will be shocked to discover that after all these centuries, they actually know nothing about their own identity, heritage and culture.

    • Avatar Courtney Humphrey says:

      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.

    • Avatar Alphonsus Jr. ? D??s ???? says:

      Why not move to the Congo?

  16. Avatar Ruined My Life says:

    Here’s my anecdote: moving to a small rural town ruined my legal career. And my life.

    Disclaimer: for some people I think moving to a rural area makes sense. If you do not like cities. If you are not a minority. Like the slower pace. And perhaps most important: you are FROM that area. I think it can be a nice way to make a living for the right person. That said …..

    I left a job in a major metro area to move to a small town. It was the worst decision of my life. The firm made incredible promises: I was to be their first associate and it would include a short partnership track, ability to start a niche practice area, exclusive work with higher profile clients in the area, and all sorts of benefits. I was romantic about small town life and the promises made seemed too good to be true. So off I went, thousands of miles away.

    I got to small town USA and boy, what a mess. I worked on completely different matters with partners I was told would not be mentoring me, no health insurance (“we decided to wait a few months on that”), and they even moved me into the utility closet. A few months later I was fired and told I had two minutes to leave the building. They did not even bother to send me COBRA information. Tried to challenge my unemployment benefits, but fortunately I won. The firm then brought on a few more partners and it appears they decided associates are not necessary. I was just their experiment.

    There were no other jobs for me in the community. I am not from the area. Everyone knows each other and they tend to only hire grads from the closest law school (still far away) to the town. If you attended the local Catholic school, oh boy, you’re set. Granted, while some attorneys were sympathetic, and in hushed tones informed me that my ex-firm’s attorneys are notoriously unethical, the small town atmosphere forces everyone to “play nice” and not much could be done for me.

    Through LinkedIn and informal networking I was able to get in contact with a few young attorneys who had worked with them previously at a different firm. Every single one had a similar experience. All but one left law.

    Unemployment, depression (not many mental health providers here … and also hard when you have no health insurance), and complete isolation came next. Who hires someone that leaves a large metro area to move to a small town and then becomes jobless? Law is like a treadmill–step off and you are done. City employers are suspicious of someone who moved to a tiny town. Small town employers want more local connections and there simply are not jobs for a fired JD with no ties to the area.

    I’m done as an attorney forever. I wish it was a bad dream. Let this be a warning to others. Don’t become me. Sure, moving to rural America can be done. But don’t romanticize it (I won’t waste any time of this rambling comment describing how hard it is to meet other educated folks in a small town). I didn’t grow up in a huge metro area, I am not some “city slicker” at heart. Just know what you are getting yourself into. And realize that if you “lose,” you can’t just walk down the street and start over like in a big city.

    But hey, at least the food I buy at the local gas station is cheap.

    • Avatar Your mistake. says:

      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.

    • Avatar Pamela Kennedy says:

      Spot on about being NOT A MINORITY. Even in “all”Native American law firms, the Native Americans there are overwhelmingly what we call “passes for White.” To blend in better with the majority-white legal profession with which they will be interacting on our behalf. Again, I rest my case.

    • Avatar Pamela Kennedy says:

      I actually had that “law is like a treadmill — step off and you are done” experience while still IN law school. Suffice it to say when I graduated I went straight back in to the Teaching profession. Somewhere in my psyche I must have thought that law school was an attempt to make the world listen to me more than they were apparently GOING TO as a Math teacher. Neither, by the way, has materialized. Hence, my venture into the field of interpreting for the Deaf (one way or another). the DEAF are less picky about the “race” or perceived-race of the person who’s transcribing for them or ASL-interpreting for them.

      But you’re spot on about the cost of living being lower in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Good luck finding a Starbucks, though…..

    • Avatar Bob Cumbers says:

      I have to agree with parts of that. I had a bad experience at a small town firm, as well. I was a top law student and law review editor in chief, but instead of going to a big firm, I went back to the town I had been living in for six years prior to attending to law school and was hired by a well established firm in town whose senior partners where happy to get someone with my academic credentials. Once I was in place thouh, it became clear that the there was disagreement among the other lawyers at the firm about whether they should have taken on the expense of hiring an additional attorney. Consequently, the other attorneys seemed to be trying to undermine me … giving me very little work (despite being told prior to being hired that I would not have to find my own clients) and being unhelpful and highly critical of the work I did do when the senior partners directed them to give me work. I ended up leaving by mutual agreement after 8 months. And, yes, in a small town, once your labeled as “couldn’t make it” at the well known local firm, your chances of finding another job are none. Not being able to get a recommendation after a bad first experience like that is a career killer and, after seven years of being under-employed, and even after moving back to the big city, I am still trying to recover from getting small-towned.

      You can have a bad experience anywhere (small town or big city), but because of the tight-knittedness and “insider/outsider” mentality of a small town, I think the career consequences of having a bad experience in a small town firm can be more severe. If I had it to do it over again, I would have started my career in the big city and, once I learned my craft and felt established, then I would have considered whether I wanted to move and practice in a smaller town.

  17. Avatar Terrijd says:

    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.

  18. Avatar Susan Goodwin says:

    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!

  19. Avatar Pamela Kennedy says:

    The problem is being ACCEPTED in a small town. I’m female, Native American, and there’s the added burden that the legal profession is mostly white (mostly white male but mostly white female as well.) It’s the modern-day equivalent of “Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman” if Dr. Quinn had been a Native American woman. Even to this day, small towns in “rural AmeriKKKa” have a hard enough time accepting women professionals, but as a brown-skinned minority woman, I’m afraid my “goose is cooked,” so to speak.

    I might, however, do well to settle in a low-cost-of-living small town and set myself up to be a closed-captioning transcription operator for the Deaf. That way I don’t have to deal with the fact that once people see me they don’t want to believe I have a brain let alone college degrees or am “fit” to “represent” them or even TEACH Math to their children.

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