Your comment touches on the essential imperative of the rural lawyer’s (in fact any solo lawyer’s) career – the need to earn a living while building a practice. It is a career in which one trades security for autonomy and where survival is based as much on ingenuity and enterprise as it is legal expertise. It is also a career that does not, necessarily, have to be done solo.
So, you need to ask yourself – do you really want to go rural solo or are you simply looking for a legal career in a rural area? While it may take some leg-work and a bit of networking to track them down, there are small rural law firms out there that are looking to hire new associates. These are the kinds of jobs you find through a friend of a friend of a friend or discover through a one-line classified ad on a state bar’s web site. These are also the kinds of jobs that will expect you to be somewhat productive from day one (so as a 2L, you may want to start volunteering at your local legal aid office).
If you are planning on going solo be prepared for hard work and little else. During the first few years of a solo career, 80% of your time is going to be spent on marketing your practice, 15% practicing law, and 5% on administrative tedium. During the first 6 months almost 100% of your time is going to be spent on marketing. Going solo out of school adds an additional layer of complexity to the mix – you have to learn the practice of law along with the business of law. Going rural solo is yet another step up on the complexity scale. A rural lawyer’s key relationships are those with people who can send him/her clients and building these community relationships takes time. With the exception of the rural kid returning to practice in his/her home town, start-up rural lawyers often locate their homes in rural communities and their practices at the edge of suburbia – think of this as “working on the edge looking out”. The thinking behind this type of mixed-clientele (rural + city) practice is that the resources of the big city (large potential client base, availability of mentors, etc) help sustain the practice and the practitioner thus providing time to build a rural referral network.
It is possible to go solo, it is possible to go solo out of school, it is possible to go rural solo out of school – just be prepared and go in with your eyes wide open and have a plan – know who your perfect client is, how you are going to reach that perfect client, what you will offer that perfect client, why that client should hire you, and where you differ from all the other lawyers out there. Don’t be surprised to find that it will take a couple of years before you can meet both parts of the rural lawyer’s imperative – but don’t be surprised when you turn around one day and find that it sneaking up on you.
There is a need and opportunity out there in the night sky, even for the debt-ridden, newly fledged lawyer. The key is to be innovative, be enterprising, and think like an entrepreneur. There are options and resources out there to help you manage your debt, find mentors, set up a cost-effective, low-cost law practice, to do find free or low-cost legal research, to learn both the business and practice of law. It is within reach, it has its risks, it is possible, and if you can make that initial leap of faith you can do it.