Out here in the little law office on the prairie fall brings cooler weather, shorter days, and the rush to get crops in, equipment put up, and the homestead battened down for the up-coming winter. It’s a time when we relearn the lesson that firewood warms you 3 times – once when you cut it, once when you split it, and once when you burn it. Fall also seems to bring a upswing in inquires about rural practices as newly fledged lawyers (my congratulations on passing the bar) start to contemplate the possibility (inevitability?) of a solo or small firm practice. With that in mind, I offer a few answers to some frequently asked questions.
Is there a need for rural lawyers?
Well, I think so, but honestly it depends on the state. Some states, like South Dakota and Nebraska, are actively seeking rural lawyers while in others it’s going to be up to the individual lawyer to find a place to practice. But fear not, the demand is growing. The current crop of rural lawyers are fast approaching retirement and there are few replacements waiting in the wings.
Is it easy to make a living with a rural law practice?
Easy? No. Possible? yes. But then again, this holds true for any solo practice any where. The trick is being able to balance the need to make money with the need to develop your business. Get this balance wrong and you’ll be headed for the boom & bust roller coaster, get it right and you’re headed toward a profitable law practice. Now, the right balance is entirely an individual thing – it’s going to depend on who you are, where you are, what you practice, how you practice (or want to practice), and the amount of cash you can throw at the problem. If you are like most potential rural lawyers that big dollar marketing budget is just not going to be there, so you’ll have to spend time rather than capital building your business – just be sure to budget your time wisely as you spend each day planning, marketing, selling, doing client work, providing client services, managing your business, and managing your finances. For a new or emerging firm, client development (marketing and sales) are going to dominate your days so be prepared to get out there and make personal connections – teach a community ed. class or two, have lunch with a referral source, be a 4H volunteer. Just be present in the community and build a good solid reputation. Small town businesses live and die by word of mouth and that kind of advertising is directly tied to your real-world reputation.
Should the potential rural lawyer buy or build a practice from scratch?
It depends. Buy a practice the right way and it’s possible to have name recognition, a book of business, an in-house mentor, and an entrée into the community the instant you move into town. Do it the wrong way and you could end up with more overhead than profits and an immediate need for a positive cash flow. If you go this route, the keys are to do your due diligence thoroughly, hire a lawyer to review all legal documents before you sign them, and to think outside the box when it comes to financing – not all purchases have to be cash on the barrelhead.
Now, building a practice from scratch lets you control everything right out of the box; your practice will be as lean, virtual, mobile, paperless, and innovative as you want and your budget allows. But it also means that the responsibility to introduce yourself to the community, connect with mentors, develop a network of referral sources, build a book of business, and learn how to manage the business side of things will be immediately dumped in your lap and you’ll be putting in long hours for little upfront return for the immediate future. Most successful solos share a few traits – they watch their overhead, they save for that rainy day, and they leverage technology.
Won’t I have to be a generalist if I have a rural practice?
To some degree yes, but it all depends on your target market – after all, it is certainly possible to specialize in something like appellate work or legal research and work from a small town. But if you are looking to serve a more general market, then odds are you are going to have to be something of a generalist. If you want to get a rough estimate of the odds you’ll have to be a generalist, count the number of lawyers practicing in town and subtract 2. If the result is greater than 0, you may be able to limit your practice to some degree. Now, there will be exceptions to this rule – living where there’s a oil boom? you may be able to specialize in energy law, having a water shortage? bone up on water rights – it all depends on what your small town needs.
Generally, the steady year-in, year-out work is going to be found in things like criminal defense, DUI defense, family law, estate planning, small business law, municipal law, and civil matters. Occasionally, an enterprising lawyer can find work in local politics, but don’t count on it for a steady paycheck – political positions in small towns are generally part time gigs; great for getting to know the town and letting the town know you but there ain’t much there for the pocket book.
How hard is it to get a job with a small town law firm?
Not hard at all if you are the right person at the right time. I’ll note that simply being highly qualified legally (top of your class, law review, moot court, etc) may not translate directly into being the right person. It helps if you are a bit more rounded – do you have a life outside being a lawyer? do you bring other skills to the firm? are you good at building lasting relationships? do you have a compatible work ethic? – and show a genuine interest in living in and working in this particular small town.