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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.

Becoming A Rural Lawyer - A Personal Guide to Establishing a Small Town Practice by Bruce CameronWell, it’s official – Becoming a Rural Lawyer is here. Like RuralLawyer the blog, RuralLawyer the book is designed to help you decide if you’re meant to practice in the 128,000 small towns dotting the US landscape. Becoming a Rural Lawyer looks at the myths of practicing in small towns, discusses emerging areas of rural practice, talks about the rhythms and (unwritten) rules of small town life, and  includes advice, tips, and words of wisdom from rural lawyers from across the US.

Becoming a Rural Lawyer is available through Amazon.com (where I welcome your impressions of the book).

Wild Turkeys

I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Living around farmers reminds one that life is an ephemeral thing, something that waxes and wanes with nature’s rhythms (today’s pig is tomorrow’s bacon) but, for the vast majority of us these small reminders are merely items of interest and not something that we focus on (the chicken that provided the eggs for your breakfast was interested in it, the pig that provided the bacon was really focused on it). Yet, when a friend’s holiday letter mentions they’ve been diagnosed with a stage 4 glioblastoma a few weeks prior, I find myself becoming a bit more focused, so this Thanksgiving, I find myself a bit more thankful for my health, my friends, and my family. I also find myself reviewing my office’s “in case of …” kit.

My “in case of …” kit is basically my backup system for me. Basically, it’s a set of documents that provide a quick guide to my filing system, mission critical software, and basic procedures so that my backup attorney has some rudimentary grasp of how to either run my practice in the short term or close it down if necessary. Ideally, I would review my kit on a regular basis (hey, I back up my computer daily, I should at least back up myself every few months), but the reality is that it takes life handing me a good swift kick before I get the impetus to block out the time. This year, it looks like I have something to do on Black Friday other than being mauled at the mall.

Happy Thanksgiving and Slàinte mhòr agus a h-uile beannachd duibh (’cause gaelic makes a nice change from latin).

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.Henry David Thoreau

Yesterday, Carolyn Elefant announced that the second edition of her book Solo by Choice (actually it is a two volume set – there is also a companion volume entitled, appropriately, Solo by Choice, The Companion Guide). In a nutshell, Solo by Choice 2011-2012 brings the original work into the age of Social Media, Cloud Computing and the realities of being a post-2008 economic collapse solo attorney and adds to Carolyn’s remarkably lucid and thoughtful prose the voices of other solo attorneys – basically, Carolyn explains the theory, the greek chorus provides a bit of in-the-trenches reality.

For anyone thinking about starting a solo practice, there are two must read books – Jay Foonberg’s How to Start & Build a Law Practice and Carolyn’s Solo by Choice. In my opinion, Carolyn’s book has always been the more accessible of the two and has been much more relevant to this rural solo – I’ve found that her take on things finds more resonance with my rural clients (perhaps its just that she’s just better at explaining things in ways I understand).

This new edition maintains those qualities – Carolyn’s text is still a joy to read; yet I am of two minds about the material provided by those other solos. I like having other voices, other explanations of the whys, wherefores and what-works and think its great to have those been-there-done-that experiences as object lessons. Unfortunately I find that the change in the “voice” of the work slows the flow of my reading.

Now, this new edition is not all roses and Skittles. There are a few places where a little tighter editing would have caught the odd typo – this is more apparent in the companion volume where the answers to the 34 questions read as if they were taken verbatim from an interview. While this doesn’t really affect the books’ readability, its does make them seem slightly less polished. But this is a minor nit – my biggest concern is that my copy of the new edition will become as dog-eared, tattered, and abused as my copy of the original.

Ghost Town, Bodie California

If this ain't the middle of nowhere, you can see it from here

It has been pointed out to me that, perhaps, one reason lawyers are not flocking to small towns is that a spouse or significant other may be reluctant to leave their career behind. Fair enough; jobs are tough to come by in this economy and it is perfectly understandable that someone would prefer keeping a sure thing over haring off into the middle of nowhere – even if it is a particularly scenic middle of nowhere. But this may not be the hurdle it appears to be. So if your SO is still talking to you after you first broached the idea of a rural practice, here are a few options: (more…)

Where, oh where, are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over, and I thought I’d found true love,
You met another, and PFFT! You was gone!Marian B. Yarneall

The rural lawyer may not be your true love, but it does seem that they are going PFFT! The good news, according to this article in the Argus Leader and this one in the Rapid City Journal, is that at least one state bar association is taking notice of the problem and starting to do something about it. The South Dakota Bar is creating Project Rural Practice to address that state’s decline in rural lawyers and, in conjunction with community leaders, to find incentives that will attract lawyers to the small towns of rural South Dakota. Many, many kudos to the South Dakota Bar.

Now, I’m one of those people who think that packing up and heading to rural South Dakota to practice law would be an interesting adventure (but then I’m also of the opinion that good neighbors are live a quarter-mile away, it is feasible to raise a calf (for a brief period) in your kitchen, and that starting a solo practice in a recession is a boffo career move), thus my idea of an incentive may be a bit biased and more readily negotiated than those of a normal person.

What would incite you, dear reader, to pack it up and head to the wind-swept prairie? Some things to consider after the break.

(more…)

Thomas and I have been having an e-mail conversation over my post “Yesterday’s myths, today’s needs“, and with his permission, I am posting a few of his insightful comments regarding the state of the rural solo down in Texas. Any errors in grammar, punctuation or spelling are due to my faulty transcription (Thomas you have my apologies & I’ll give some thought to your suggested post topic).

I think that most of the people who spread the misconceptions about rural law practice are, frankly, lawyers who aren’t making money in the big city and use these myths as excuses for not opening a rural practice.  “Oh, I’m struggling now, but think how bad I would have it if I practiced out in the country!”

You’re right that the rural bar is aging and many lawyers are retiring (although some of them don’t… there was a story about a lawyer in Weatherford, TX, who died in the past year at the age of 101 and practiced law pretty much up until the day he died.)  I’m 27 and relatively few people in my generation (particularly relatively few lawyers) grew up in a small town, so there are far fewer people my age with the contacts already built up that they think are necessary to build a small-town practice.

And there’s also far less competition from the big-city lawyers than one might assume.  In the county seat 40 miles from Dallas and Fort Worth where I practice, it’s very rare to see lawyers from either of those cities in the courthouse.  Although, these aren’t exactly small towns any more… more like exurbs.  I still need to move farther out.

In fact, the good ol’ boys network tends to be a lot more prevalent in these sorts of towns than in real small towns — where the local attorneys, particularly the older ones (who have been practicing there since it was a dot on the map), feel a bit threatened by the big-city lawyers who might poach their cases.  This is particularly true as suburban and exurban cities grow and the new people feel less identification with the town.  So, for example, the county has a rule that in order to get on the list for court-appointed cases, 80% of your pending cases must be in this county — obviously a move designed to keep Dallas lawyers from getting on the “wheel.”

The Texas Bar has a lot of information about its lawyers posted online, so I thought it would be good to look at some of the information. According to the state bar, the average lawyer in Texas is 48 years old and has been licensed to practice for 18 years.  They also have information on the six largest counties in the state:

  • Harris County (Houston): 47/17 years
  • Dallas County: 47/17 years
  • Tarrant County (Fort Worth): 48/17 years
  • Bexar County (San Antonio): 49/18 years
  • Travis County (Austin): 47/16 years
  • El Paso County: 50/20 years

Considering that 57 percent of the state’s lawyers have their office in one of three counties (Dallas, Harris, Travis), and in all three of those the average lawyer is younger than the state average… yeah, that means that the average lawyer outside the major cities is older.  (El Paso’s a bit of an outlier, but then it’s not really the kind of place that young lawyers are dying to go to…)  Overall, two thirds of the state’s lawyers practice in the five largest counties.

Well, I looked into the county where I currently reside, its average lawyer is 45 and has been licensed 15 years.  So that’s actually a more extreme example of where the younger lawyers are going. On the other hand, in three smaller cities in west Texas — Abilene, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls, all of which have a population around 100,000 — the average lawyer is 55 and has been licensed for 25 years.  So half the lawyers in those cities will be hitting retirement age in the next decade.  (Abilene actually has a lot of younger lawyers as well, though… evidently not many lawyers set up shop there in the 1980s and 1990s, for whatever reason.)

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