Blowing horns on Bleeker Street on New Year's Day

Marjory Collins, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,LC-USW3-013050-E

With the new year comes a new blog for me – Little Law Office on the Prairie (LLOotP for short). My plan is that LLOotP will be a place to discuss the business of running a rural law firm – everything from the marketing and business challenges rural solo’s and small firms face to the technology that makes our jobs easier. Don’t worry, RuralLawyer will still go on, but  RL is going to focus more on the why than how – more mens rae than actus reus if you will.

Now, there’s not much going on over at LLOotP at the moment, but you are welcome to cruise on over and see if I fixed all the 404 errors. And if that doesn’t set the bar low enough, LLOotP will have roughly the same posting regularity as RuralLawyer – generally monthly, some times bi-weekly, occasionally weekly but always when I think about it.

Happy New Year.

Old North Dakota Courthouse

Courthouse, Valley City, ND, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,LC-USZ62-73197

Granted, the human population of North Dakota tends to be spread a bit thin, but when 21 counties have fewer than 4 attorneys (4 counties have no lawyers , 8 counties only have 1), access to justice is problematic and a lawyer’s retirement can have far-reaching consequences.

One way to solve the problem is to follow the town of Wishek’s example and directly recruit attorneys (See Wishek Wants You).  Another way is to make law students and young lawyers aware of the benefits and opportunities that are available in small towns and rural areas, and that’s the approach that the North Dakota Bar Association, in partnership with the state courts, and the University of North Dakota Law School, is taking.

Using funding provided by the North Dakota Legislature, this partnership created three summer clerkships designed to allow law students to work for judges in counties with less than 15,000 people. While this is still just a pilot program, the program hopes to expand and provide not only clerkships, but externships with State’s Attorneys and private practitioners.

If you’re wondering what a lawyer in the wilds of North Dakota possible do, Judge Gail Hagerty puts it this way:

There are real legal needs out there: more oil and gas law, an increasing amount of probate matters, more crimes to deal with, and more need for family law. Right now, without immediate access to legal services, it’s very difficult for people, and it can increase costs. We also need more attorneys to do indigent defense work, we need more prosecutors and we need more new practitioners. There’s a lot of potential in rural communities.

There’s a lot more probate work, for example, with property that wasn’t probated for generations, Now we need to clearly establish ownership of the land and mineral rights. Some of that land was once thought not to be worth very much, but it’s suddenly worth a lot more.

From family law to probate, from business law to energy law, from criminal defense to prosecution – seems like those new rural lawyers are going to be busy.

See:

A hat tip to:

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-8311 (c) Leslie-Judge Co., J.M. Flagg artist

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-8311 (c) Leslie-Judge Co., J.M. Flagg artist

So you want to be a rural lawyer, well opportunity may just be knocking at your door. The town of Wishek, North Dakota is looking to an independent attorney to open a full time law office in the community now that their previous attorney has retired.

Wishek is a small community (pop. 1002 last time the census went through) in the rolling hills and open spaces of south central North Dakota that sees having a local attorney as a valuable commodity, so the Wishek Job Development Authority (JDA) is offering a number of incentives to help entice an attorney to set up shop and put down roots. You’ll have to talk to the JDA directly about the particulars of their incentive package but there is talk that it could include assistance in locating an office, housing and with the cost of relocation. The previous attorney may also be available for consulting and mentoring.

One word of caution – this position comes complete with upper midwest prairie winters – so if you’re not a fan (or at least some what tolerant) of snow, cold wind, and the occasional dip down to arctic temperatures, this might not be the job for you. On the other hand, if you are thinking that it might be nice to start a practice some place that actually wants a lawyer and are willing to invest in several lawyers of warm clothes then you and Wishek might be a match.

For more information, contact Duke Rosendahl, the Wishek JDA director (for contact information, check the Wishek, ND website). This is a limited time offer and the deadline for applications is December 31, 2013.

Lawyers getting scarce in Nebraska (hat tip to Sidney Sun Telegraph)

The Nebraska State Bar Association is reporting that many Nebraska counties lack sufficient numbers of lawyers to adequately serve the needs of the client base. Currently 12 counties have no lawyers, the end result being that clients are traveling 200+ miles in order to access legal services (unintended consequence #2 is that these clients are not only taking the dollars they would spend on lawyers out of the county, they are taking the dollars they would spend on other things as well). The good news is that the Nebraska State Bar Association has started an initiative to try to encourage law students to consider a rural law career – pointing out things like the accelerated career advancement (average time to partner in  a rural firm: 4-5 years), and the availability of a challenging workload. The program includes tours of small towns and, in its inaugural year, connected at least 2 – 3 graduates with jobs (hey, it’s a start).

OK, So I wasn’t the first with the idea to map where lawyers aren’t

The South Dakota Bar Association beat me to the punch with their map of “Lawyer Population in Rural Areas“, and if that’s not bad enough, I’m betting it’s even more accurate than mine ’cause they most likely had professionals do it (not that I’m jealous or anything).

The reviews thus far for: On Becoming a Rural Lawyer

Susan Carter Liebel has posted a thoughtful review of my book over on Solo Practice University. Caroline Elefant of My Shingle fame was very generous with her review, as were the folks over at SDRuralLawyer, who listed my book as one of their featured books.

Distribution of Lawyers in Minnesota

Minnesota Lawyers by Zip Code. Pin color relates to count – violet = 1,  blue = 2, green = 3-5 yellow = 6-16, orange = 17 – 70, red = 71+

When it comes to the shortage of rural lawyers and the whole access to justice issue, Minnesota is not the first state that pops to mind. After all, the raw numbers would tend to indicate that there’s not much of a lawyer problem here in the land of 10,000 lakes; after all there are some 11.2 lawyers per 10,000 residents which puts us 12th in the nation (based on the currently available Avery Index). Especially when we look at the situation in our neighboring states: Iowa (6.2 per 10,000, rank 46), Wisconsin (6.8 per 10,000, rank 45), North Dakota (4.4 per 10,000, rank 51), and South Dakota (5.8 per 10,000, rank 48). But I’m not sure that the raw numbers really tell the whole story – it’s not so much a matter of how many, as it is a matter of where (and how old).  So, I took a look at the where the lawyers really are (or aren’t) here in Minnesota based on Zip Code (a task far easier than trying to sort things out by county). Granted the resultant map is a bit crude (those darn Google Earth pins really don’t scale well), but it serves to illustrate some of the gaps out beyond the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. The basic gist being that as one moves away from the metro area, law firms become smaller, fewer, and more dispersed.

Admittedly, my data is somewhat crude; I am looking at raw counts and I am not compensating for lawyers who are retired, who are otherwise not taking private clients (e.g.: in-house counsel, in politics, teaching, etc.), or a slew of other variables (data overlap, doubled counts, correcting for outliers, etc.) so don’t for a moment think this is in any way statistically rigorous or significant.

As I look at this map, there are two things that strike me. The first being that I’d like to know the age of those violet, blue and green dots out beyond the metro cluster. Based on my observations, odds are about a third of them are within 5 years of retirement (if not already retired – remember, for the rural lawyer retirement usually means you spend slightly less time in the office and slightly more time fishing – unless of course you move to a sun belt state) and another third have the midpoint of their career in their review mirror and are starting to think about succession planning and eventual retirement. The other thing is that access to justice is as much about income as it is about distribution. Just as lack of income can great an access desert” in the midst of a lawyer-dense metro area, so, too, can a simple lack of lawyers. The only good news is that it is far easier to fix the latter (and potentially more profitable for the lawyers involved) than it is to fix the former.

Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.Henry David Thoreau

The small town lawyer’s practice seems to ebb and flow with the seasons and within each season. There is steady work in the late fall after harvest and throughout the winter until that moment when the days have lengthen sufficiently to start to stir thoughts of spring with in a human’s soul (barring the important holidays of course – come Christmas week and the first week of deer season and client calls drop off precipitously).

1200003_88771071Then there is summer ; those long lazy days of summer, days where the sun’s rays languish late into the evening and the heat and humidity are tailor-made for sweet tea and porch-settin’ – days where the most pressing thing on your plate should be emulating your dog’s efforts to sprawl across the lawn under the spreading crown of a maple and become one with the shade, waiting for the next thunder shower to walk across the countryside sweeping the heat and humidity away. And yet, the rural lawyer will, more likely than not , see that the pace of work quickens as the days grow hot and long. Some days it seems like summer’s weather has more effect on client inquires than one’s marketing efforts; an uptick in client calls is a sure predictor that a storm front is on its way; if they can’t be out in the fields, they are more willing to come into your office.

Rain is not the only thing that seems to drag clients into the office. Increases in client load also follow the predictable lulls in the normal farming routine – those periods between the end of one major event and the beginning of the next; it seems that the great sabbats of farming (spring planting, hay cutting, harvest) are no longer marked by joyous, hedonistic rituals but by dealing with matters legal, medical, or dental. While I generally approve of any tradition that results in an increase in business, I am somewhat saddened by the loss of the more ancient ways – then again, I am sure that the mere thought of lawyers cavorting naked about a bonfire under the full moon on a warm July evening did more to kill off these ancient rituals than simple modern-day practicalities.

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In “Is Bigger Always Better?“, attorney Michael C. Larson talks about the pull to come home to the small town law practice his great-grandfather started in spite of the occasional law school daydream of a big law career. For Mr. Larson, bigger was not better, it is the little things, the personal connection to his work and to his clients that make his career fulfilling – as he puts it: “There is something to say about being not only intellectually invested, but emotionally invested in your clientele.  I get to see first-hand the way I affect people’s lives.”

Corey Bruning discusses how he went from zero to his first jury trial in about 15 minutes in “Rural Practice Realized: A Success Story” – well, not quite in 15 minutes, there was a bit of set up before hand. Mr. Bruning is a second career attorney, Deputy State’s Attorney and partner in a small town (his hometown) law practice. As of this month, he’s six months into a law practice that covers everything from criminal prosecution to estate work, family law to business law and everything in between. Sounds like a typical rural law practice to me.

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