Where, oh where are you tonight?

Where, oh where, are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over, and I thought I’d found true love,
You met another, and PFFT! You was gone!Marian B. Yarneall

The rural lawyer may not be your true love, but it does seem that they are going PFFT! The good news, according to this article in the Argus Leader and this one in the Rapid City Journal, is that at least one state bar association is taking notice of the problem and starting to do something about it. The South Dakota Bar is creating Project Rural Practice to address that state’s decline in rural lawyers and, in conjunction with community leaders, to find incentives that will attract lawyers to the small towns of rural South Dakota. Many, many kudos to the South Dakota Bar.

Now, I’m one of those people who think that packing up and heading to rural South Dakota to practice law would be an interesting adventure (but then I’m also of the opinion that good neighbors are live a quarter-mile away, it is feasible to raise a calf (for a brief period) in your kitchen, and that starting a solo practice in a recession is a boffo career move), thus my idea of an incentive may be a bit biased and more readily negotiated than those of a normal person.

What would incite you, dear reader, to pack it up and head to the wind-swept prairie? Some things to consider after the break.

  • Financial
    • Relocation – Americans may be a mobile society, but moving a household is a serious expense – even if you’re still at the “pack it all in a U-Haul” stage of life. So, it seems reasonable to assume that some form of relocation assistance is going to be necessary to drag lawyers out of suburbia.
    • Housing – Finding housing remotely is tough even with the Internet. The “fly up for the interview and stay over the weekend to find a place to live” shtick may work in an urban setting, but having lived in a couple of structures that could best be described as wooden tents (the small town definition of a handyman special is a completely different beast when compared to its urban cousin) speed is not your friend when looking for rural real estate. Offering some form of buyer/tenant focused housing locator service would be helpful – having an actual move-in ready short-term (a year?) rental property would be better.
    • Income – This is going to be the biggest roadblock to getting lawyers out into rural communities. It is scary to contemplate starting a practice away from your existing social and business networks having no idea if you are going to be able to pay the bills and feed the family. Having a guaranteed base level salary during the early years of a practice as an incentive would allay fears and give the new lawyer time to build the contacts necessary to have a self-sustaining practice. Local governmental entities join together to contract for legal services – divide a base salary across a few entities means no one entity shoulders the entire load and may result in a cost savings for all.
  • Professional
    • Office – small town clientele tend to like the formal trappings of the legal profession – three-piece suits and brick and mortar offices are the expected accouterments of a small town lawyer. Problem is, office space tends to be scare in many small towns and, like housing, finding it is not something that should be done during that quick visit to check things out. So having the community arrange for some office space (perhaps at a discounted rent) would be a big help to the incoming lawyer
    • Isolation – if a town is going to retain their (presumably solo) lawyer, someone is going to have to address the issue of professional isolation. It is difficult to grow a practice in a vacuum – CLE’s are as much about making professional contacts as they are about developing skill sets. For the lawyer practicing just down the road from the middle of nowhere CLE’s are also about social contact. Sure, the Internet can serve up tons of social networking, legal listservs, webinars, and blawgs and the smart rural lawyer is going to be a regular at the local social events, but there are times when you just need to sit down over a cup of coffee and shoot the bull with other lawyers. Here’s where the state bar could really shine. While mentorship programs, local listservs, bar-specific blawgs and bar-specific online forums are great ideas, it would be really innovative if the bar were to take some of its social events on the road – yeah, I know its far easier to have 1 rural lawyer drive the 90 minutes into the big city than try to shepherd 20 lawyers the other way – but I’ll tell you that without any hint of reciprocity, that drive gets less and less attractive and eventually its easier to stay home than make the effort.
  • Commitment – it’s all well and good to consider what the community and the bar can do for me, but what about the flip side? What’s going to make a lawyer an attractive addition to a small town (’cause I’m betting that they are not just looking for warm bodies that can pass the bar exam)? My hunch is that they are looking for something of a generalist – someone who can advise the town council one day and do a probate the next. I’m fairly sure that they’d prefer a little experience, but won’t say no to someone straight out of school. And I’m 100% certain that they are looking for someone with the attitude that this small town is not just a stepping stone on the way to bigger and better things, but is the place where a career will happen.
For any rural lawyer recruitment drive to be successful, everybody is going to have to have some skin in the game – the incoming lawyer is going to have to have the desire to commit, perhaps not an entire career but a good portion of it, to the town (voluntarily and preemptively becoming licensed in the state would be a good gesture of commitment), the local community is going to have to provide some financial support, and the state bar is going to have to provide some professional support. This type of initiative appears to work elsewhere, there’s no reason it can’t work in South Dakota.

For other bar sponsored rural initiatives, see:

2 thoughts on “Where, oh where are you tonight?

  1. Thanks for the great post. I’m a rural solo attorney in Nebraska, but previously practiced as a solo in more urban Rapid City, South Dakota. I think that it’s definitely a viable option for solo attorneys to practice in rural areas, but will be interested to hear the SD Bar task force’s opinions (and solutions) as to the barriers of attorneys moving to rural areas to practice law.

    I’ve linked to your post at my two blogs: http://backintheblackhills.blogspot.com/2011/09/rural-practice-and-south-dakota.html

  2. Pingback: Short Takes « Rural Lawyer

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