Observations on Rural Stereotypes

I recently read an article in the Atlantic, Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life, that got my blood boiling. I won’t spend Lawyerist real estate doing a rebuttal. Besides, the nation’s snarkiest T-Shirt company (that just happens to headquarter in Des Moines) took care of that for me. But, as the resident rural blogger, allow me to debunk some of the stereotypes* this article perpetuates that prevent you from considering rural practice.

1. There isn’t interesting work

Reading this article might make you think that the most interesting legal work is left to county prosecuter’s going after meth heads. You would be wrong. As I stated in a prior post, there are sophisticated legal issues in rural areas. Also, you get direct client contact and file responsibility on day one. This is the experience of a fellow estate planner in Winona, Minnesota, Jennifer Knapp. The same day I ran across the Atlantic article, I also ran across this article on Minnesota Public Radio, Rural areas struggle with lack of lawyers. Ms. Knapp left a metro legal job to get the client contact she wanted. She’s found interesting legal work outside of a metro area. And for anyone who’s read the Atlantic article, Winona may be a Mississippi town, but the view is anything but “scuzzy”.

2. Rural areas are no place for the educated

The Atlantic article makes this staggering claim: “[t]hose who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow’ “(typo the Atlantic’s). This would leave one to think that rural America is no place for the educated. I guess someone forgot to tell that to my law partner, Scott Springer, who graduated from a top 20 law school during the fat employment years of the early 00’s and chose to open a practice in a rural Minnesota town, or tell that to my collegue, Shawn Vogt Sween,  in a neighboring town who, after getting a Harvard law degree, came back to her rural hometown to open a law practice. And, lawyers aren’t the only educated people in rural America. I could go to my small town grocery and find a farmer who could give an explanation of the Euro-crisis or the implosion of MF Global because these sophisticated international financial issues affect their bottom line. No one knows more about global finances and politics than a farmer.

3. You can’t find culture

There’s more to do in rural America than shoot turkeys with rifles (besides, everyone knows you are not allowed to hunt turkeys with a rifle) or head to tractor pulls (we only have those once a year at the county fair, anyway). As a foodie, I live in heaven. The same bluffs surrounding “scuzzy” Mississippi towns are havens for morel hunters. My office is fifteen minutes from restaurant that make my European relatives salivate and this weekend, I’m going to a winery opening ten minutes from my house. Last weekend, I got my classical music on, not just by attending a symphony concert in a town better known for Spam (the meat kind), but by playing 3rd clarinet in a Gustav Holst piece.

Not everyone is cut out for rural practice and not everyone will find a fulfilling life-work balance in a metro area. But, in your job search, do your own investigation, don’t rely on stereotypes to dictate the right fit for you.

*I realize that I live and work in Minnesota and these piece is about Iowa. But, I live a wind turbine blade away from rural Iowa. I went to law school in Des Moines. I may live in Minnesota and have grown up in South Dakota, which normally gives me license to mock and ridicule my neighbor to the south, but this article perpetuates stereotypes people have about the rural Upper Midwest in general that I just have to do my part in debunking.

Originally published on December 23rd, 2011 and updated on July 18th, 2019


  1. Avatar Katherine says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for alerting me (and other rural readers) of the ridiculous article in the Atlantic (so much for intellectual conversation, huh?). As a solo in rural north-central Illinois who went to a top 25 law school, I appreciate your comments on rural stereotypes, especially those debunking insinuations about education, curiosity, and culture. Shame on the Atlantic!

  2. Avatar Matthew says:

    You should really proofread better, especially when pointing out errors in others’ work (which I don’t see, by the way, unless you’re referring to “waste-toid,” which I doubt has a standard spelling anyway). Your mistakes, however, include “spending” real estate, the use of “headquarter” as an intransitive verb, an incorrect apostrophe, a superfluous space between single and double quotation marks (if you’re going to use a space between them, it should be non-breaking so they won’t be split between different lines, as they are here), inconsistent spacing after commas, a superfluous comma after “and,” and misspelling of “moral.” It’s also bad style to say “typo the Atlantic’s” rather than just “[sic].” There are probably more problems, but I won’t go on.

    • Ths typo was this one:
      “…those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around…”
      I’m stunned that you missed it. Perhaps we all miss things, every day. Not to say we shouldn’t do our best, but I think it’s okay to suggest that an article in the Atlantic should be more diligently composed and proofread than a blog post. Or a comment about a blog post.

  3. Avatar Matthew says:

    Writing for a “blog” doesn’t excuse horrible, subliterate writing. Lawyerist is a for-profit enterprise, written by professionals, for professionals. If the author is going to take the time to note mistakes in others’ writing—no matter where she does it—she should at least write passably herself. Or at the very least, run the GD spellcheck.

  4. Avatar Betsey says:

    Two thumbs up from me, Ms. Gumbel. Keep up the great work!

  5. Avatar David Watson says:

    Let ‘um have it. I did thirty years in a semi-rural practice in Texas and you couldn’t pay me enough to work in a big city “law factory.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Oh, I think (hope) we’re allowed to use rifles in Texas.

  6. Avatar Zanne says:

    In paragraph one of your article, you refer to the Winona to which Ms. Knapp moved as being in Mississippi; it isn’t. The article states: ” Libera Knapp Law Office in Winona, Minn., … ;” her Winona is in Minnesota. The abbreviation for Mississippi is wither Miss. or MS; for Minnesota, Minn. or MN.

  7. Avatar Randall R. says:

    Ignore the trolls, great article!

  8. Avatar Bernard King says:

    I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota before moving to California for law school, which is now where I work. If it weren’t for the bone-chilling winters I would’ve never left. Upper-midwesterners are some of the most pleasant and intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

    The law is interesting in every location, the only thing that changes with the big city is the amount of money at play and the size of the egos involved.

  9. Avatar Guest says:

    I always fount it bizarre that people comment on legal blogs to point out spelling/grammar errors as though these reflect deficiencies in the writer’s intellect; rather than the fact that the writer only budgeted 15 minutes for writing a blog post.

    It then occurred to me that there are hordes of young lawyers who sit at a desk all day and submit documents to more senior lawyers for review. The young lawyers have no strategic understanding of the case; don’t know which decisions will lead to victory or loss; and don’t understand the clients objectives. They only understand that the senior lawyer will yell at them if there are typos in the document. Ergo, a good lawyer is one who produces documents with not typos.

  10. Avatar Jennifer G. says:

    Thanks to all of you who were as fed up with the Atlantic article as I was. Just to note, I wasn’t referring to “moral” hunters. (What would that be anyway? A non-poacher? Someone who doesn’t shoot fawns? A bow hunter?) I was referring to “morel” hunters, as in those who gather, “hunt”, for morel mushrooms. Morels are a delicious mushroom that grow in the bluff country of Southeast Minnesota near the Mississippi River. Morel hunters out here sell them to restaurants on the East Coast. I use them in risotto.

  11. Avatar Deja says:

    Matthew, don’t be a douche. Did I spell that correctly? There are ways to provide insight and criticism without being a jerk about it. That often comes with maturity – something it seems you may be lacking.

    I am a solo practitioner just a county over from Ms. Gumbel. I moved from the big city back to a rural area because I have children to educate, and I would like them to know community. If you haven’t lived in a small town – you probably do not really understand the meaning of that word. I also have 100% control over who I take on as a client. I regularly pick up the phone when I meet a new client – and talk to opposing counsel about problem solving and case management. It also tends to keep the riff raff out, because attorneys are held accountable. Clients learn quickly if there is a bad apple in the mix.

  12. Avatar Zale says:

    The bottom line is this. It doesn’t matter if you sip gin or guzzle Budweiser. What matters at the end of the day is whether or not the fees are coming in and can you stand the source of the fees. There are fees to be made in rural America. Often, the clients are nicer.

    I also find it interesting that we assume that those who live in rural America are stupid. I was very surprised by a recent jury pool that I had. The town was very backward, even the locals admit that. What we noticed was that there were a lot of well educated, well employed, talented people on the jury pool because they had fled the Urban area for the Rural one. They commuted to their urban jobs everyday. Even a local “Big Law” attorney lived in the town. I don’t think anyone knew he owned a farm in “Hickville”.

  13. Avatar Sabu B says:

    Do you have the source of this blog post by Atlanta? I would love to take a look at it.

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