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.

A New Rural Resource

Looking over a small hillside farmThere is a new resource out there for rural lawyers and the communities they serve. Rural Law is setting out to simplify access to legal information and solutions to rural america and the small town lawyers who practice there.

Currently, the web site concentrates on providing legal resources for the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The site provides links to quality resources as well as contact information for small town lawyers. The contact information is a bit sparse, but Patrick Burns, the lawyer behind Rural Law, is continuously adding new information as he discovers it (if you are a small town lawyer, you may want to give him a call and help build the network).

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:

Wishek Wants You

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.

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.