Follow up: Yesterday’s Myths, today’s needs

Thomas and I have been having an e-mail conversation over my post “Yesterday’s myths, today’s needs“, and with his permission, I am posting a few of his insightful comments regarding the state of the rural solo down in Texas. Any errors in grammar, punctuation or spelling are due to my faulty transcription (Thomas you have my apologies & I’ll give some thought to your suggested post topic).

I think that most of the people who spread the misconceptions about rural law practice are, frankly, lawyers who aren’t making money in the big city and use these myths as excuses for not opening a rural practice.  “Oh, I’m struggling now, but think how bad I would have it if I practiced out in the country!”

You’re right that the rural bar is aging and many lawyers are retiring (although some of them don’t… there was a story about a lawyer in Weatherford, TX, who died in the past year at the age of 101 and practiced law pretty much up until the day he died.)  I’m 27 and relatively few people in my generation (particularly relatively few lawyers) grew up in a small town, so there are far fewer people my age with the contacts already built up that they think are necessary to build a small-town practice.

And there’s also far less competition from the big-city lawyers than one might assume.  In the county seat 40 miles from Dallas and Fort Worth where I practice, it’s very rare to see lawyers from either of those cities in the courthouse.  Although, these aren’t exactly small towns any more… more like exurbs.  I still need to move farther out.

In fact, the good ol’ boys network tends to be a lot more prevalent in these sorts of towns than in real small towns — where the local attorneys, particularly the older ones (who have been practicing there since it was a dot on the map), feel a bit threatened by the big-city lawyers who might poach their cases.  This is particularly true as suburban and exurban cities grow and the new people feel less identification with the town.  So, for example, the county has a rule that in order to get on the list for court-appointed cases, 80% of your pending cases must be in this county — obviously a move designed to keep Dallas lawyers from getting on the “wheel.”

The Texas Bar has a lot of information about its lawyers posted online, so I thought it would be good to look at some of the information. According to the state bar, the average lawyer in Texas is 48 years old and has been licensed to practice for 18 years.  They also have information on the six largest counties in the state:

  • Harris County (Houston): 47/17 years
  • Dallas County: 47/17 years
  • Tarrant County (Fort Worth): 48/17 years
  • Bexar County (San Antonio): 49/18 years
  • Travis County (Austin): 47/16 years
  • El Paso County: 50/20 years

Considering that 57 percent of the state’s lawyers have their office in one of three counties (Dallas, Harris, Travis), and in all three of those the average lawyer is younger than the state average… yeah, that means that the average lawyer outside the major cities is older.  (El Paso’s a bit of an outlier, but then it’s not really the kind of place that young lawyers are dying to go to…)  Overall, two thirds of the state’s lawyers practice in the five largest counties.

Well, I looked into the county where I currently reside, its average lawyer is 45 and has been licensed 15 years.  So that’s actually a more extreme example of where the younger lawyers are going. On the other hand, in three smaller cities in west Texas — Abilene, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls, all of which have a population around 100,000 — the average lawyer is 55 and has been licensed for 25 years.  So half the lawyers in those cities will be hitting retirement age in the next decade.  (Abilene actually has a lot of younger lawyers as well, though… evidently not many lawyers set up shop there in the 1980s and 1990s, for whatever reason.)