We must not be hampered by yesterday’s myths in concentrating on today’s needs — Harold Geneen
There are a number of reasons not to embark on a rural law career – the daily Starbucks run is going to take a good hour (and then there is the wait in the store), your typical small town is not, generally, one of those places of rarefied refinement and culture attractive to the movers and shakers of the business world, so it’s not ideal for a lucrative mergers and acquisitions practice. However, there are a few common misconceptions that should be put to rest.
1. There is not enough work out there
It may not be raining soup, but there is work out there. The rural bar is small (only 20% of practicing lawyers practice in towns with populations of 50,000 or less), aging, and getting smaller as rural lawyers retire. Yet the need for legal services remains constant, so the result is that access to legal services is reduced and small town folks end up having to either travel to find legal representation or do with out. The secret is: people in small towns prefer to spend money locally – create a favorable environment (affordable services, a reputation for competence) and the work will come.
2. I can’t afford to work at a lower rate
So, you’re a new lawyer with a heavy debt load, you hope to find salvation through the high salary of the metropolitan big firm lawyer – one question, how’s that working for you?
I have no doubt that, on average, rural lawyers charge lower rates than their metropolitan counterparts, but before dismissing a rural practice out of hand simply because you can’t charge big city fees, remember you are not going to have a big city cost of living. As an example, the average lawyer in California (a state heavy in big city lawyers) earns about $88,000 while the average lawyer in Montana (a state heavy in rural lawyers) earns about $48,000 [based on 2007 Census data]. Adjust for the differences in the cost of living and you find that $48,000 in Montana has the same purchasing power as $101,000 in California. Sure this is a crude, unscientific comparison, but it does show you could have more even if you gross less.
3. I’d feel isolated
Well, yup – if you’re a solo in a small town, you are going to be alone – just you, perhaps your staff, and whoever drops by, but thanks to Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and the social networking revolution, you are only as isolated as you want to be. Then again, the one constant truth about a small towns is that small towns tend to hire “their own” before they hire outsiders and there are only two ways to become one of their own: (a) arrange matters so that your family has lived in the area for at least 3 generations, or (b) be a joiner, get out there and meet people, participate – not only in the town’s social life, but in the local bar (lawyers are referral sources).
4. I’d miss out on challenging legal work
You are absolutely right – the rural lawyer does miss out on things like mergers and acquisitions, securitization, international corporate tax law (but then, so does the average metropolitan lawyer); the rural lawyer is doing those small messy things that matter to people – family law, estate planning, criminal defense, mechanics liens and construction matters, personal injury, bankruptcy, small business matters, real estate, debt collection, agriculture law, and municipal law. The rural lawyer also practices within a community that emphasizes and fosters collegiality and respect and often misses out on the competition and incivility that occasionally marks a big city practice.
5. I wouldn’t be exposed to a variety of practice areas
If you mean that you won’t be exposed to a fixed schedule of well-defined rotations through the various departments of a major law firm, you are absolutely right. The rural lawyer has to be a bit more flexible and be able to write a Will, open a probate, handle a residential real estate closing, serve a summons and complaint, and defend a DUI case – and that’s just the agenda for Monday.
6. I’d miss out on the big law experience
A rural practice is not going to offer that slow steady crawl toward career success that big law provides. Since the rural lawyer has to be ready for direct client interaction and courtroom appearances from day one, rural practice is more like jumping into the deep end of the pool, foregoing the slow safe wade forward. Look, a rural practice is not for everyone (nor is a big law career) – you have to follow your muse.
7. Rural lawyers aren’t as good/sophisticated as big city lawyers
Don’t underestimate the small town lawyer – the small town lawyer is just as likely to be a Harvard Law School (Order of the Coif, Magna Cum Laude) graduate as a graduate of Podunk U Law School (325 out of 326). Small towns are not big on credentials, they value competence over accolades, so the rural lawyer soon learns that advertising professional expertise and legal acumen is an exercise in futility – no one cares; either you can do the job or you can’t – too much self-promotion will cause folks to avoid you (pomposity breeds skepticism – folks figure no one is that good). If a rural lawyer is making a living, assume that he/she is able to get the job done – under that mild-mannered disguise lies a good lawyer. Rural lawyers are not practicing out in the sticks because they aren’t talented enough for big city law, they are out there because they choose to.
8. Rural law – it’s all back-room deals between the good ol’ boys
Hate to say it, but the notion that rural law is what’s cooked up in a darkened courthouse cloakroom between an aged, semi-senile judge and a couple of portly white guys more inbred than educated is more Hollywood than reality. The reality is that the rural bar, from the knowledgable, keenly acute judges to the talented lawyers of both genders is quite sophisticated, technologically savvy, and welcoming. Sure there are traditions (foreclosure sales on the courthouse steps, using blue ink when signing documents), but the court clerks know all the oddities and are quite willing to share – all you have to do is ask. These days, the legal good ol’ boy network is about as hard to break into as Facebook.