I have a fondness for rural courts even though my entire experience with actual litigation has been limited to a few uncontested matters in which my chief role was to greet the judge, confirm that the opposing party had been properly notified and still was not present, and thank the judge when everything concluded. Perry Mason I’m not.
For me, rural courthouses and the people who staff them (professionals all) still engender a sense of respect for tradition, for the law. They seem to demand an older (perhaps antiquated) ideal of courtesy and gentile behavior; these are, after all dignified buildings that still command a place of pride in their communities.
When you get down to it, a rural law practice is a risk. It is about investing a great deal of capital (time, money, effort) into an enterprise that comes with no guarantee of immediate success. To succeed, you have to be willing to go “all in” on the belief that the cards you’ve got form a winning hand. It is about connecting with a community, building relationships and balancing the rural lawyer’s prime requirements – making a living and building a practice.
My best wishes to all of you – those who are in rural practice and those of you contemplating the plunge – you are needed out here.
This particular clip was the result of a bit of serendipity; I had recently been in an e-mail conversation with a pre-law student interested in eventually starting a rural practice and how one might choose a suitable law school to achieve this laudable goal.
Well, spring sprang. We’ve had our state of grace and our little gift of sanctioned madness, courtesy of Mother Nature. Thanks, Gaia. Much obliged. I guess it’s time to get back to that daily routine of living we like to call normal. — David Assael
According to the calendar here in the little law office on the prairie, it’s spring and time for a rural lawyer to turn his thoughts to those glorious rites of tax preparation, spring cleaning, and the next year’s budget. The only saving grace is that ol’ Mother Nature has, once again, plunged us into the freezer with sub-zero wind chills and a dusting of snow and ice thus lending her encouragement to these hedonistic pleasures.
Spring is also the time when rural law firm’s thoughts turn to the hiring of new associates, so if you are looking to make the move to a small town law firm, now is the time to dust off the résumé and amp up the networking.
If you don’t mind the cold and snow, the grapevine has it that a few small town law firms here in Minnesota that are looking for new associates – Over in Northfield, the firm of Grundhoefer & Ludescher is looking for an entry level associate (contact David Ludescher, deadline is April 21st), In New Ulm, the Legal Professionals are looking for an associate with some experience in the areas of estate planning, business law, probate and real estate (deadline is April 18th), and the Schnitker Law Office in Spring Lake Park is looking for an associate with 2-4 years experience in civil practice, particularly in eminent domain and real estate (contact Kirk Schnitker, deadline is March 28th).
The opportunities are out there folks and a rural practice does not always mean a solo practice. Have a great spring.
While buying an existing practice is not for the faint of wallet, it can be a way to bootstrap your small town legal career. An existing practice comes equipped with community connections, a client base, the possibility of an in-house (or at least in-town) mentor, and existing overhead. Just because the average rural law firm buyer is an established lawyer looking for a quieter place for a solo career, this does not mean that the newly graduated shouldn’t consider this option (just be sure your financial ducks are in a row).
Before shopping for a practice, its a good idea to do a bit of planning before hand. Have some idea of where you’d like to practice, the type of practice you’d like (it is hard to change the course of an existing small town practice – your clients will have certain expectations and these are not going to change overnight just because you’d rather do estate planning than family law), and the type of deal you’d like (what will the transition period be like & how long will the seller stay on with the firm, how payments will be made, etc).
Once you have an idea of the where, what, and how and have located a few potentials, it is time to do your due diligence. You’ll need to find out things like: just how much of the practice’s book of business is transferrable, how the firm obtains new clients (is this all due to the reputation of one individual?), the percentage of referrals, the percentage of repeat clients, the firm’s overhead, and the method used to determine the firm’s value, just to name a few.
It takes a great deal of hard work and out of the box thinking to track down and get into the right existing practice, but it is possible – it is even possible to structure a deal that requires little upfront cash (granted these deals usually require extended payment periods, balloon payments or payments based on future revenue).
If you don’t mind being out here in the frozen prairie, there’s a nice little real estate/estate planing/municipal law practice for sale over by the Mississippi river. If you’re interested, give Roy Ginsberg (roy(at)royginsburg(dot)com) at shout. Roy’s not the one selling, he’s simply acting on behalf of the owner.
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.
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.