What is a Rural Lawyer?

According to the US Census Bureau[1], 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[2], 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.

See also:

  1. Urban and Rural Classifications
  2. ABA Rural Book

Previously in this series:

6 thoughts on “What is a Rural Lawyer?

  1. Pingback: Thinking About a Rural Practice? « Rural Lawyer

  2. Interesting and informative article. I found my way here via-a-via Susan Cartier Liebel. I have enrolled @ SPU and am extremely happy after my long wait for its launch. I have been reading the hot topic of debate on
    whether solos should find a niche or not. I am a career prosecutor of 20 years turned (mainly criminal defense) as I hung out my shingle 2 years ago. I guess you could say I did not find my niche-it found me. When I opened my doors I was floored with criminal defense clients, whom I suppose knew of me or heard about me from my years of winning jury trials as the chief assistant DA. I have spread my wings into civil rights violations, but again this niche found me. I do occasional family law and injury law. My question is this: I do not have the time nor the money to become an expert in a completely foreign (to me) area of the paractice of law, oil and gas for example. I am quite happy doing just criminal defense work and I a fortunate enough to have built a successful practice doing just that, however; In the beginning and even now during drought months am I to turn away clients that come to me in areas in which I am qualified enough to handle but are not of my true expertise?

    One more comment. I wanted to comment on your article about “rural attorneys” or ” Boutique lawyers in small towns” I have noticed in the rural Parishes where I practice (Parish because I am in Louisiana) that the small firms in rural parishes that offer a little bit of everything, have not realy excelled @ any particuliar area of law, but those with their “niche: do exceptionally well.

    Melissa Sugar

  3. Welcome to Rural Lawyer and thanks for your comment.

    Regarding rural lawyers and boutique lawyers, you have a valid observation that trying to be all things to all people at all times yields poor results for all concerned. I firmly believe that finding a niche is a good thing. However, when one is the only lawyer in town, one needs to be flexible and adaptive when necessary. I believe the defining element of being a rural lawyer is being involved in one’s rural community. When being in a rural location is done more for the “cute” factor then anything else and there is little intent to serve the rural community then you get a “boutique” practice. That is “boutique” translated as “a pricey store located in a quaint location” rather than “a practice focusing on a niche”, the legal equivalent of the “darling little B & B nestled in the sleepy pines of small New England town ____” – the one you know darn well the locals would never/could never use and that caters to an exclusive New York clientele.

  4. While I maintain brick and mortar offices, I am in many ways also a virtual lawyer. I can take my work on the road anywhere as the bankruptcy courts have e-filing. I am used to communicating with clients by phone and email. Many of my clients prefer telephone appointments. We all know Texas is huge and in many places sparsely populated. Because of my technology intensive distance friendly law practice, I routinely get clients from as far away as 100 miles, some across the country.
    I guess that makes me a rural lawyer.

  5. If you are “riding circuit” (if only virtually) over a 100 miles of Texas countryside, I’d agree that you are a rural lawyer. Welcome to the club.

  6. Pingback: Opportunity in the Night Sky « Rural Lawyer

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