No Lawyer, So What

Puzzled woman - how much of an impact does a lack of lawyers really have?So, the rural lawyer population is dwindling and there is a legal desertification creeping across small town USA – so what, it can’t be that big a deal what with the internet, on-line legal services and all.

Yet, as Maria Kefalas points out in her book “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America,” the lack of lawyers (and other professionals) is one of those 10,000 cuts that can slowly kill a community. It seems that when little, common place things start to get a bit more difficult –  things like: getting a divorce, managing a business, resolving civil disputes, or defending criminal cases – small towns take a hit; a lack of lawyers isn’t the death-blow, but it is a symptom of a potentially terminal disease.

This legal desertification can have a real economic impact. Based on a 2013 study by Dr. Joseph C. Von Nessen, your average lawyer has an economic multiplier of 1.6 or to put in slightly more concrete terms: if a lawyer spends $1000 a month to run his practice, the community sees $1600 in total economic activity. Granted, Dr. Von Nessen’s study only covered South Carolina and the numbers for your particular state may vary but the point is, lawyers feed small town economies.

Then there are the governmental costs; a lack of local lawyers means that small town governments and public entities (school boards, county commissioners, etc.) must pay outside lawyers to travel into town to handle local affairs. Rural courthouses are not exempt from these travel expenses – trying a case locally can mean paying for the judge’s, prosecutor’s, and public defender’s drive time. These costs can strain local budgets in the best of times.

Now the lack of a lawyer may not be much of a problem for those small bedroom communities that cluster around cities like chicks around a hen; after all the daily commute puts lawyers within easy reach. But for those small towns out beyond suburbia’s sprawl, where the drive time into the “city” is measured in hours, local lawyers matter.


Doing, Not Waiting

Rural Law OfficeWhile the senior leadership of the Georgia Bar Association work on plans for a lawyer incubator (a small pilot program) and a rural lawyer assistance plan (now in the hands of the state legislature), the bar’s Young Lawyers Division have launched the Succession Planning Pilot Program with the idea of matching successful, practicing, small city or rural lawyers with young lawyers and recent graduates looking for positions.

The program leverages existing resources available at the state’s law school’s career services and addresses two of the chief concerns of a fledgling rural lawyer – the lack of mentors and the need to develop a sustainable practice – while giving established rural lawyers a pipeline of interested, qualified successors.

A Rural Lawyer tip of the hat to small town lawyer Sharon Edenfield for bringing this idea to fruition.

Mom, Apple Pie & Rural Lawyer Assistance

Even if one counts judges, prosecutors, public defenders, county and city attorneys and all the other categories of lawyers not generally available to the general public, there would still be 6 counties in Georgia that lack lawyers and a couple of dozen counties with fewer than 5 lawyers (see this article).

So, on Saturday, the State Bar of Georgia Board of Governors approved a plan to attract private civil attorneys to rural areas by offering state-funded repayment of law school loans to any attorney who moves to an underserved rural community. Even through the plan was described as “a great idea”, “a great idea”, and “mom & apple pie” it’s passage was not without some debate (see this article).

Frankly, these types of assistance programs are a good first step, but there needs to be more in place if young lawyers are going to succeed in rural practices; things like mentorship programs and community buy-in. It also would help if there were clear ethical guidelines on the use of technological innovations like client portals and virtual law offices. There needs to be an effort made to show the potential rural lawyer that practicing in a county that’s more pine barrens that people can be profitable, not just sustainable; that it can be a career rather than a set number of years of pro bono and ramen before moving on to better things and bigger law.

My hat’s off to the Georgia Bar for taking that first step. I wish them success and I hope they continue to help young lawyers build rural practices.

Questions From The Gallery

Out here in the little law office on the prairie fall brings cooler weather, shorter days, and the rush to get crops in, equipment put up, and the homestead battened down for the up-coming winter. It’s a time when we relearn the lesson that firewood warms you 3 times – once when you cut it, once when you split it, and once when you burn it. Fall also seems to bring a upswing in inquires about rural practices as newly fledged lawyers (my congratulations on passing the bar) start to contemplate the possibility (inevitability?) of a solo or small firm practice. With that in mind, I offer a few answers to some frequently asked questions.Rural Lawyer FAQ

Is there a need for rural lawyers?

Well, I think so, but honestly it depends on the state. Some states, like South Dakota and Nebraska, are actively seeking rural lawyers while in others it’s going to be up to the individual lawyer to find a place to practice. But fear not, the demand is growing. The current crop of rural lawyers are fast approaching retirement and there are few replacements waiting in the wings. Continue reading Questions From The Gallery

Another Approach

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.


A hat tip to:

Short Takes

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.

Where the Lawyers Aren’t

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.