Dear Joseph

Dear Joseph,

I hope you don’t mind the informality, Mr. Flanders seems a bit stiff for this blog (it’s more Carharts & Red Wings than Brook’s Brothers & Edmund Allens around here). First, thanks for the comment to Beyond Our Field of View; I am always flattered to know that someone other than spammers peruse my miscellaneous ramblings on rural law and rural lawyering. Now, to address some of your questions.

I don’t have a good definition of what or, more precisely, who a rural lawyer is. The prototypical rural lawyer lives and practices in a small town, yet some live in small towns but have offices in larger cities, and some live in larger cities and practice in small towns. By the way, “large” and “small” are relative terms depending on the area of the country you live in (what’s “large” out here on the prairie would look pretty “small” were it plopped down by Los Angeles – my guess is that there are more people in one block of downtown LA than there are in the small town I live in). If you are serving small town clients, you are a rural lawyer in my book.

There is nothing wrong with having both city clients and country clients. Donald Landon in Law Careers and Community Context: A Comparison of Rural and Urban Experience noted that to meet the entrepreneurial imperative of building a practice while still making a living, it was not unusual for rural lawyers to arrange their practice so that they drew clients from small towns as well as metropolitan areas – this is what practicing at suburbia’s edge is all about. No matter what, if you are starting a law practice, you are starting a business and you have to think first in terms of being an entrepreneur – unless you are blessed with a remarkably large personal fortune and practicing law just happens to be your way to do that “charity thing”, the point of this exercise is to make money, so take on city clients, country clients, or clients from other worlds (just be sure to get that retainer up front). If it is ethical for you to take the client, take the client, take the client’s retainer and go do the best job you can (under promise, over deliver) and build that positive word of mouth advertising.

As for hanging out your shingle in a small town – go for it. Keep your overhead low and expect to spend a lot of time out there networking. You are not going to find many rural lawyers advertising for partners – those positions tend to get filled through the “knowing someone who knows someone” network – occasionally you’ll see a small classified ad (“small town law firm looking for…”) in the back of a state bar’s monthly magazine, but those are rare. If you are serious about working for a small town law firm, take the owner to lunch (repeatedly) and build a relationship with him/her.

The same goes for buying a small town practice (though I’ve seen more “practice for sale” ads than “partner wanted” ads in the bar’s classified section). If you want to buy a small town practice, you are going to have to know someone who knows someone who is selling. One starting point would be Ed Poll, he seems to have an ear to the ground when it comes to law practices that might be for sale.

Yes, there is a lawyer shortage out here in small town USA and no, you aren’t going to see a whole bunch of “help wanted” signs. A rural practice is about community and community ties. Building a rural practice is as much about building community ties as it is about practicing law. Established rural firms have enormous amounts of personal capital invested in their community ties and they are wary of being just a stepping stone on a young lawyer’s career path. They are looking for people who are looking not just for a place to practice law, but a place to put down roots, and they know that they are more likely to find those people through word of mouth networking than they are through a help wanted ad.

Starting a solo practice is not easy and success requires a lot more than simply being in the right place (if you are not reading My Shingle, start). It is not the number of people you should figure into your calculations, it is the lawyer to people ratio that’s important, more especially it is the “lawyers in your niche” to people ratio that is important. If there are 10 lawyers in a town of 1000, it might look like the legal profession there is a wee bit over saturated – however if your niche happens to be DUI defense and there are no other DUI defense lawyers in town, the whole legal landscape suddenly changes.

A few closing words of advice:

  • Start your practice in a place where you are comfortable – if all you want to do is head out of Dodge when the evening whistle blows you are not in the right place. Building a practice takes time and it takes focus – if your mind is not in same place you are, you won’t have the focus and you won’t take the time.
  • Practice in an area of law you are passionate about. Passion shows, passion attracts, passion gets you through those days when you start contemplating the ROI on dynamiting your office.
  • Strive for excellence as you pursue your career.
  • Figure out your answer to the question: “how do I build a practice while still earning a living”

Good Luck