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.

 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8a42222

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8a42222

The second of May saw 13 inches of heavy wet snow descend on my little part of the prairie – a noteworthy event even by Minnesota bachelor  farmer standards (a group that is notoriously parsimonious with praise). Like all good storms worth of the title “the great ______ of [insert reference year]”  (e.g.: the great wind of ’36, the great frost of ’09, etc.) this one left a bit of havoc in its wake. One particularly inconvenient bit of havoc left me without power for 14 hours.

For those of you who might brush this aside as a minor inconvenience, here is what no electricity means for my neighbors and me. No power means no water (we’re all on private water, aka wells, out here), no heat (takes electricity to power blowers, pumps and thermostats), no internet (those DSL routers don’t run on peanuts) and no computers (well at least nothing that’s not battery-powered). And, given that I had already changed the oil in my truck and tractors from the light weight winter oil to the heavier weights diesel engines prefer during the summer months, no power means that my snow removal equipment is not going to start (under 32 degrees, these summer time lubricants take on the same fluidity as wet concrete and need a bit of coddling and a bit of electrically generated heat before they are willing to flow) leaving me sitting on the waiting list for the local snowplow – at a quarter-mile long, my driveway is not one that lends itself to being shoveled by hand.

So, here’s the question – is your practice – that digital masterpiece of paperless perfection – robust enough to go 1 working day without power? Having just completed a review the hard way, the best I can say is that mine can, but things could be better. (more…)

source: National Archives and Records Administration, records of the Women's Bureau

source: National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Women’s Bureau

It seems that I have, at some time in the recent past, brought myself to the attention of that imp of that controls the quality of customer service and have been blessed with an odd assortment of well-intentioned, but altogether hideous encounters with those call center denizens relegated to direct consumer contact. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for those whose job it is to m interact with the likes of me when, through no fault of theirs, a product goes south. It has to be one of the world’s greatest thankless tasks – when it goes right, no one notices and when it goes completely catawampus the complaints fall like rain from the sky.

Act 1: 

First, let me be honest, I abhor PayPal – it is a visceral thing with no logical explanation, no reality-based justification, and does not stem from any fault of the service itself – and tend to use it only when circumstances force it upon me. Then only regular use I have for it is to pay for a single annual subscription to an on-line service. This means that I typically access PayPal once every year or two. It also means that whatever familiarity I had with the user interface is guaranteed to be out of date and completely inaccurate. While I got though my biannual task some imp lurking somewhere between my desktop and PayPal’s servers inserted the notion that I had some interested in merchant services. Now, I do have to give the sales folk credit for their follow-up and their tenacity – e-mails inquiries were closely followed by phone calls 5 minutes later. It was only by sheer happenstance that my schedule had me out of the office (the contact pattern was e-mail, phone call, wait 48 hours, repeat) during the sales contact 3-peat cycle. By the end of the entire debacle, I had a mild twinge of regret when I received the e-mail telling me that I was being removed from the salesman’s contact list.

Act 2: 

For some reason, I’ve been getting calls from salesfolk who feel that it is necessary to be less than honest in their intentions to get past my receptionist and voicemail – a tactic that has me wasting time scanning caller id and googling unfamiliar area codes each time an unknown caller opens a conversation with “I’d like to discuss a possible [fill in practice area here] matter with you”; a tactic that seems to have been pioneered by a few legal referral services but that has now been picked up, by all groups, Mediate.com – a mediator referral source. It seems strange that a referral service for  mediators (a group that tends to want to create trusting environments) should choose deceit as it’s opening gambit.

Act 3: 

Now, I will admit a fondness for freebies and was intrigued by the Dan Kennedy/GKIC offer of free marketing information. After entering an e-mail address in the appropriate place, I was redirected to a web page where I could claim my “free” information for only $19.99 (shipping and handling). Not having sufficient interest in the material to invest just south of $20 in the “free” package I left the page and headed out to greener pastures. Again, I will give the GKIC auto-responder kudos for follow-up; it has diligently been sending me various daily e-mails explaining exactly why I should invest a measly $20 for this wonderful “free” gift.

Lessons

From a distance, I can get a chuckle from my recent customer service debacles – it is amazing how time can turn annoyance into perspective. And with perspective, comes the basic reminder that a quality customer experience does not come from the end product, but from the entire interaction. I should point out that, with the possible exception of Act 2, my annoyance arose not from poor service, but from over-zealous service; after all, the lack of follow-up is the leading cause of lost sales though I think that there is supposed to be some delay between contacts (there’s constant contact and then there’s CONSTANT contact). So, I have to thank the various actors for reminding me:

  • To listen to the customer – understanding is far more difficult and far more valuable than simply hearing;
  • Be up front with the customer and set the correct expectations; and
  • While follow-up is good, there are fine line between follow-up, too much follow-up, and stalking;

After a longish winter (snow on the 26th of April is a bit over the top), the annual rights of spring are finally upon is – the fishing opener is but a weekend away and the wild turkey season is in full swing. For those not familiar with these activities, both are exercises in which the participants spend far more than is strictly sane to obtain a food stuff that could be had at a reputable grocer for a tenth the price. For those of us who spend our time participating, these rights are about more than simply nurturing our inner hunter-gatherer, they mark the transition when snow-shoveling (sure there is skiing & snowmobiles, but it all has to do with that frigid white stuff) gives way to far more varied ways of being outdoors.

Turkey hunting is something of a solo activity – after all, if you are armed, dressed like a bush, and making sounds like turkey, the last thing you want is another armed, turkey sounding bush anywhere in the vicinity – while fishing tends to be more a small firm activity – 2 or 3 gathered together to wash worms, sit in contemplative silence or to debate the great problems of the world as mood suits. When fall comes around, the big law model hits the woods and fields as groups head out to spend time in the deer camps of the great north woods.

785286_48781848But places to hunt are fading away as more landowners close acreage to hunters – set aside acres are being put back into production, woodlots and non-tillable lands are being put into private preserves, and some are simply closed thanks to, I’m sorry to say, the poor husbandry of the hunters themselves. As more and more land is closed or put to more profitable use than simple outdoor recreation there will be people interested in preserving their ability to pursue their form of communing with the great outdoors.

I’m not sure that a recreational land practice would ever be a full-time profit center, but then again it might with the right mix of estate planning, real estate, contracts, and entity formation;  after all, hunters are not the only ones wanting to preserve the space needed for their outdoor activities – there are equestrians and mountain bikers looking for places to ride, snowmobilers looking for places to run trails, and cabins on the lake to preserve for the next generation. The potential client pool encompasses anyone with a hobby that takes place outdoors and requires a bit more space than your average backyard.

Marketing this type of practice is may be a little tricky – most likely it will be mainly be by word of mouth and will involve a delicate balancing act so as narrow the niche too far; the recreational land practitioner would need to recognize that the various elements of their client pool may have divergent requirements (equestrians aren’t going to want to share trails with dirt bikes, and those looking to spend a quiet snowy evening alone in their cabin tend get a mite peeved when a herd of snowmobiles shatters the mood) and that the best marketing would project this understanding to the client pool.

The only other caveat I can think of at this juncture, is that this would not be the type of practice that confines itself to a small geographic area. At the very least, this is the type of practice that would span counties if not an entire state – the recreational land practitioner should expect a bit of travel time in their future.

I should note that I’m not the only one thinking about the niche practices offered by the outdoorsy folk – sdrurallawyer offers this prospective as to why a lawyer should be included in a hunting party.

382606_3276Today’s Leader Post reports on the University of Saskatchewan’s efforts to recruit rural lawyers.

The lack of rural lawyers is not just a problem here in the US; the root causes – population shifts away from rural areas, practicing rural lawyers looking at retirement and practices closing because there is no successor – are not localized phenomenon.

The article reports on the University’s efforts to address 2 problems common to rural lawyer recruitment: a lack of familiarity with available opportunities, and the siren song of a big city practice. While the University’s College of Law is just beginning to address the later issue (the preliminary ideas seem to be focused on some form of loan forgiveness and modeled after a program the Saskatchewan government offers medical students), the school is actively addressing the former by providing day trips to rural areas for interested students.

Rural law practices don’t happen simply because a lawyer hangs out a shingle. They happen by building a connection to the community; it’s basically about being the right person in the right place at the right time and frankly, the only way to find the right place is to go out and spend time in rural areas and small towns (find the right place and you become the right person). Now, unless there is a sign from above – lightning flashes, thunder booms – a day trip is really not enough time to evaluate a rural area (if they know yo are coming, just about anyone can be charming for a few hours) but it is enough time to make a few connections, to collect some contact information, to start thinking about opportunities, and perhaps to plan for the next trip.

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