According to the US Census Bureau, a rural “place” is any territory, population, and housing unit not classified as urban unless designated as an extended city. In other words, it’s any place with fewer than 2500 occupants located outside of a continuously built-up area with a population of 50,000 or more. So, one definition of a rural lawyer would be an attorney working in a place with fewer than 2500 occupants. The ABA is more generous with its definition, considering any area with a population of less than 50,000 as rural. The ABA does note that the definition of “rural area” varies across the US so what might be rural in Vermont could well be an densely populated area in Alaska. Thus the ABA’s rural lawyer is one who works outside of a high-density population center.
What these precise, sterile definitions tell us is that out beyond suburbia’s sprawl lies the rural lawyer and if you look at the numbers there are precious few of them. Those that are not solos tend to cluster in small firms where there is often a familial relationship between the attorneys. This is terra incognita for big law firms.
The typical image of the rural lawyer is that of a generalist. After all, it is rare to have more than one attorney set up shop in a small town so the common expectation is that he/she will do everything and typically there is the unspoken caveat nothing will be done well. I believe that the rural lawyer is more than just location, and is an adaptive specialist rather than a generalist (regardless of the shingle that reads “… Law Firm, General Practice”).
The rural lawyer recognizes that the needs of the community ebb and flow and that rhythm drives his practice. The rural lawyer has to manage the interconnectedness of practice areas and ably match community need and related areas of law. In hard times the rural lawyer evolves to become knowledgeable in bankruptcy and recognizes that financial stress and marital strife are interconnected so she adds an emphasis on family law as well and her practice becomes, for a time, bankruptcy and divorce. In good times the community’s needs change; there are businesses to form and farms to expand so the rural lawyer adapts again placing an emphasis on business law and real estate. And so it goes. The adaptive specialist is not market-driven, changing emphasis at every uptick or downturn of the stock market. The adaptive specialist takes a longer view, retooling only when the needs of the community have truly changed. To accomplish this, he must be a participant in his community not just a mere observer.
I do recognize that there are successful law firms located in small towns that offer targeted boutique services, specializing in Appellate work, IP law, and the like, but these “rural by location” as they still look to the “big city” for their clients and their location is simply another selling point (“everything is less expensive in the country”) . The rural lawyer looks within the bounds of his community for clients and sees her location more as “home” than as a way to reduce overhead.
Now, I would like to direct this question outwards and invite your comments on how you would define a rural lawyer.
Previously in this series: