Looking for a Law Job? Consider the Country

In recent years, there’s been discussion about oversaturated legal markets. With the reality of a down economy and more lawyers being licensed every year, it can be difficult to find a job, let alone one using your legal skills.

A source of law jobs that law students can overlook is the legal community outside of metro areas.


Lawyerist contributor, Eric Cooperstein, recently shared a lament from a rural colleague about attracting legal talent in a recent post. His post created quite a stir, on Lawyerist and elsewhere. As the resident rural blogger, I look forward to tackling some of the points brought up in future posts. One issue is addressing common misperceptions that keep people from exploring job opportunities in rural areas. Most of these notions are, frankly, unfounded and may keep you from finding the perfect law job.

Practicing in a metro area is playing on the varsity squad (so if I’m not in a metro area…).

This was a belief that I had coming out of law school. It took a year working as a law clerk in Mower County, Minnesota to find out I was completely off the mark. On the one hand, it may seem like there’s more competition for jobs in the metro areas. On the other, it can be easy for less than stellar legal minds to blend into large legal communities. If you’re practicing in an area with few attorneys and appear in front of the same judges week in and week out, you can’t afford to be practicing on anything less than your A-game. Frankly, there are great attorneys in the metro and in the country and there are poor attorneys in the metro and in the country.

I won’t have as complex or interesting work.

This is perhaps the biggest misconception of rural practice. Business owners, people with large estates, and families with complex issues are located everywhere. Don’t assume that people in rural communities who need sophisticated legal services look for services in metro areas. In fact, clients in rural areas are like clients anywhere. They want to work with a professional they trust and are comfortable with. Usually, the fact that you are local will do more to attract those clients than anything else.

Another point is practicing in smaller firms, which make up most of the law offices outside of a metro, will usually mean greater contact with clients and greater responsibility on the file. Smaller firms don’t have the manpower to keep associates locked away in back rooms doing legal research. Attorneys who practice in rural areas tend to find themselves sent to the courthouse and meeting with clients as soon as they start. While you may initially feel like you’re being thrown in the deep end, you’ll be a better attorney for the early experience and may find yourself having more interesting work than your classmates in the metro.

I won’t be able to specialize.

There is some merit to this belief. At least initially, you may find yourself offering, shall I say, full legal services. In a metro, specialization will help you stand out from the competition. In a rural area, over specialization may keep you from having enough work. That being said, most attorneys in rural areas end up practicing in a few related areas, trial work or transactional work, while referring other types of work to their colleagues. Also not specializing, at least initially, can be a benefit. You may find that you love working in an area of law that you never thought you would have. If you are never in a position to try practicing in different areas of law, you may miss out on satisfying work.

Keep an open mind. Explore job opportunities and do your homework. You may find that the perfect law job is waiting for you out in the country.

(photo: http://flic.kr/p/5t4wte)

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  • D. Smith

    Jennifer,

    I recall that Abovethelaw also did a series of posts on “small law” that made the case for us big-city types to get over ourselves and trek out to the country. I thought it was insulting and conceited then, and, while I have no doubt that your heart is in the right place, I think it’s insulting and conceited now.

    The legal job market is not just slow; for new lawyers, it’s just about dead. Too many law students with an unfortunate ’09 or ’10 (and soon ’11) on their degrees are scrounging to find offices that will let them work for free, slaving away at $10/hr document review gigs and waiting tables. They’re living with mom and dad, and hiding like fugitives from Sallie Mae. They are not, as your post implies, too stuck up to make their way out to Mayberry. If there’s a need for someone to review leases in the coldest most isolated prairie town in all of North Dakota, a few thousand East-coast law grads will happily apply.

    If you really want to be helpful, don’t waste your energy telling us all how awesome country law really is (we believe you, and mostly don’t care). Tell us where to find these rural employers that we’re allegedly “overlooking.”

    • Jennifer Gumbel

      D. Smith,

      No disrespect was meant. But speaking as a fairly recent grad and now on the otherside as a practicing attorney, I know how I and my fellow classmates had misperceptions about rural practice. I also have collegues with medium sized firms in my area who consistantly have issues either having law schools not taking their job postings seriously or having very few students apply for open positions.

      I don’t want to imply that the problem is graduates who are too stuck up to apply to jobs that they know about. But there can be misperceptions that cause some to rule out such practice. I’m just trying to address those misperceptions and start out by asking people to keep an open mind, one which in all honesty I myself didn’t have until I was a judicial law clerk and could witness rural practice. I also hope to address a lot of aspects of rural practice, such as finding jobs, determining whether one is a good fit for rural practice, marketing and so on in future posts. However, the nature of blogs don’t provide the best outlet for a comprehensive treatise on a topic. I only hope, with this post, to get the ball rolling and start the discussion and I thank you for taking the time to voice your opinion and keeping the discussion going.

    • Joel Anderson

      “If there’s a need for someone to review leases in the coldest most isolated prairie town in all of North Dakota, a few thousand East-coast law grads will happily apply.”

      Do you have a source to back this statement up or is it completely unfounded conjecture?

      • D.Smith

        Conjecture, but I’ll happily bet an enormous student loan payment on it. Mine will be the first of the thousand.

    • Kenneth

      How is this insulting or conceited? As a very recent law grad, I know this is how many of my classmates felt. She’s just providing her perspective.

      I practice in a city (in my own office), but I’m finding a lot of my clients from the surrounding rural areas. If I had realized this, I would have put a lot more thought into putting my office there in the first place. Also, a number of my classmates from small towns stayed in the city thinking this was where the jobs were, and that’s clearly not the case. So maybe those coming across this perspective will think of looking back home or in a similar community before entrenching themselves in a the city based on false assumptions.

    • leolawgirl1

      I am a 2009 law grad who, after living in several metro and suburban areas around the midwest/southern US, returned to my hometown of 35,000 people after graduating. I was able to land a clerkship/staff attorney position with a state court judge. I have handled cases dealing with just about every area of the law. Now I am heading out into the community with an opportunity to work into a retiring attorney’s practice. Along with one of my lawschool classmates, I plan to start a multi-county practice, and I know that the outlook is good for something like that to succeed and to qualify me as a rainmaker. I couldn’t be happier – but, then again, I was small town to begin with. And that’s the thing- these jobs often aren’t posted. It’s all through networking. And you generally have to know how to fit in with other small town lawyers, and genuinely like living in the community (or a metro area nearby) in order to succeed. It’s not for everyone, but for some of us, it’s a perfect fit.

  • Mike Whelan Jr

    Where do rural attorneys post jobs? That’s been a problem with job searching in general – how little access to info there is on many of the employers I’d like to work with. You might say “get yourself out there and network with lawyers in the middle of nowhere” but that is really tough. It’s throwing darts at a giant wall with a tiny bullseye. I want to start my own firm but would like some income as a contract lawyer with a firm in the sticks. I’m thinking 20 hours a week at a small firm outside of town then spend the rest of my time building my own firm. How in the world does one find that?

  • Liz

    I grew up in just about the middle of nowhere – the nearest village had a population of 211, and the farmers in the area were served by at least 14 lawyers that I can think of off the top of my head. I then moved to a comparatively “big city” in the county seat, population 12,000, in a county of 40,000 people. The 100+ lawyers hanging around the courthouse were all living hand to mouth and seemed to be going into politics to get contacts and salaries for better gigs.

    In all my time in small towns (and my parents still live there) I have never met one person who couldn’t find a lawyer, one non-retired lawyer who seemed to be doing very well, or one law firm that was hiring. New lawyers moved into town, set up their own shops, and then spent a few years being suckers for the good ol’ boys tricks.

    This whole go-rural-it’s-great thing drives me up a wall. There’s not some hick population waiting to be educated by the big city folks. Everyone already has a lawyer, and in almost all cases, that lawyer grew up in the area he (oh yes, HE, and almost always white, too) now serves.

    I suspect the people perpetuating this myth are just trying to sell placement services or advice on hanging out a shingle to the suckers who fall for this latest variation on the go-to-law-school-it’s-what-you-make-of-it-and-a-versatile-degree-REALLY scam.

  • Beatrice

    I am living in a rural county with a healthy part-time lawyer community. I didn’t attract enough customer base to afford a law practic – malpractice insurance, supreme court fees, advertising, office space, utilities, and on and on.

    The population sees “too many” attorneys here in the county seat, but, what they don’t see is that the other towns in the county, with one exception do not have law offices. The lawyers are where the courthouse is.

    I was disappointed that the Public Defenders were hired from out-of-county. I could have used the income and experience. I do pick the brains of all the attorneys in county I know to help me find work in the legal professions. I’m ok with paralegal, as long as it allows me to keep my foot in the door and learning.

  • Scott

    It is interesting to me that there are others who have experienced the opposite of Jennifer and I in rural practice. When I did my business plan to open my office in a rural county seat, I looked at not just the lawyers in the county seat, but in the county. I looked at the population of the county, the ratio of lawyers to population, and the ratio of lawyers to population nationwide. What I found was that the ratio nationally was 4 times the ratio where I was planning to open my office. And when I looked at the ages of the attorneys that were practicing in my county, that ratio looked to more to improve more than two fold within the coming 10 years. The market looked ripe for the picking. I knew that I wasn’t a born-and-raised good ol’ boy from that town/county, but one of the nice things about rural areas is that the people there are parochial. Even if you weren’t born and raised there, if you’re there now, then you’re a darn-sight finer person than the lawyer that’s 50 miles away in the city. And those good ol’ boys that are there? One of ’em screwed your potential client’s grandmother out of the family farm, and the other one went to school with their brother and he’s a grade-A dipstick! Now, I’m the first choice.

    Needless to say, four and a half years later, I’m still averaging a new client every 4 days, and that’s not counting multiple files from returning/ongoing clients. They’re not all big files, and some of them are completed and closed the same day with very little in fees. But after two years in business I was too busy and had to bring on another attorney. It’s not a gold mine, but the way of life means something, too. The point is, do the market research. Learn about the area, the people and businesses in the area, and about the lawyers in the area. Just because it’s rural doesn’t mean it’s going to be a viable place to practice law, but there are markets in some rural areas that are just begging to be tapped.

  • jeff

    My biggest issue is probably income…I WANT to start a rural practice, but I worry about having a limited market and limited income. What say you regarding this concern?