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. Continue reading
In “Is Bigger Always Better?“, attorney Michael C. Larson talks about the pull to come home to the small town law practice his great-grandfather started in spite of the occasional law school daydream of a big law career. For Mr. Larson, bigger was not better, it is the little things, the personal connection to his work and to his clients that make his career fulfilling – as he puts it: “There is something to say about being not only intellectually invested, but emotionally invested in your clientele. I get to see first-hand the way I affect people’s lives.”
Corey Bruning discusses how he went from zero to his first jury trial in about 15 minutes in “Rural Practice Realized: A Success Story” – well, not quite in 15 minutes, there was a bit of set up before hand. Mr. Bruning is a second career attorney, Deputy State’s Attorney and partner in a small town (his hometown) law practice. As of this month, he’s six months into a law practice that covers everything from criminal prosecution to estate work, family law to business law and everything in between. Sounds like a typical rural law practice to me.
Well, it’s official – Becoming a Rural Lawyer is here. Like RuralLawyer the blog, RuralLawyer the book is designed to help you decide if you’re meant to practice in the 128,000 small towns dotting the US landscape. Becoming a Rural Lawyer looks at the myths of practicing in small towns, discusses emerging areas of rural practice, talks about the rhythms and (unwritten) rules of small town life, and includes advice, tips, and words of wisdom from rural lawyers from across the US.
Becoming a Rural Lawyer is available through Amazon.com (where I welcome your impressions of the book).
There are times when duct tape just won’t do
Rural communities pride themselves on their independent spirit and the idea that an individual or a community can accomplish anything if they just set their mind to it. This is the land of do-it-yourself; there are few things these folks won’t or haven’t done be it a simple matter (say rebuilding a tractor’s motor) or the more complex (building a home). Sure, they’ll hire a “pro” to handle the tricky bits, but out here the term “pro” can mean “someone with more tools than you” or “someone who’s done it at least once” – it does not, necessarily, mean “someone with actual training, skill and expertise”.
This do-it-yourself spirit also extends to things like sewer and water – things generally considered basic infrastructure items in metropolitan areas. Given the lack of population density, private sewer and water systems are far more cost-effective than their public utility equivalents; when the distance between homes is measured in terms of miles (or fractions of miles) and not feet or yards, it is hard to recoup the cost needed to install and maintain a public water system. And, for the most part, private systems work well and once installed are reliable and simple to maintain – that is until they stop working and you realize that getting water out of the ground is a bit more complex than simply turning a tap.
One of the advantages of being in solo practice is that it’s fairly easy to get your boss’s OK to stay home and deal with the crisis du jour. One of the advantages of being a rural solo is that your clients understand when you call them at 7:00 AM to tell them you can’t meet with them that day because your well pump is out and you are hand-watering your livestock. The big disadvantage is that once you’ve cleared your calendar, you now have to (a) actually see to your livestock one bucket at a time, and (b) fix your well pump – if you are lucky the problem is electrical, above ground and easy to fix (provided you remember to turn the circuit breaker off first), if not, then there’s a couple of hundred feet of slimy, wet pipe that needs to be pulled out of the ground and it’s time to call in a pro.
Besides putting a kink in your morning ablutions, this rural fascination with DIY can put a kink in a rural law practice. It is the rare rural client who’ll see a lawyer at the first sign of a legal problem (cherish these people for they make your life simpler), most will either put things off until the last moment or try to handle things themselves. While these DIY’ers can have significant impact on your bottom line (inevitably, it costs far more to fix a problem than prevent one), they represent a far more valuable marketing opportunity and can become some of your biggest fans. When the DIY’er reaches the call-the-pro stage, they are (a) looking to resolve a very immediate problem and (b) are at a very teachable moment – if you can find a satisfactory, cost-effective solution and show them in a non-judgmental way (a) how much more cost-effective this solution would have been if… or (b) how many more options would have been available if … these do it at the last-minute consumers can be transformed into loyal call-at-the-first-sign clients — plus, pulling someone’s butt out of the fire (it may be a small fire to you, but it’s a big fire to them) is always good for positive word-of-mouth advertising.
Now, it’s time to get back to watering the critters.
There is one thing I have to say about moving a law office – don’t pack your checklist with all the rest of your papers. Took me 3 days to find it again and trying to tie up all the sundry loose ends from memory is a harrowing endeavor. You are constantly plagued with the nagging doubt that you’ve forgotten something. The only positive thing about this whole exercise (outside of the lower rent) was having scheduled some vacation time at the end of May (the great thing about being solo is that my boss is pretty easy-going when it comes to providing a little down time when needed).
For those not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of a rural solo practice, you have to realize that, unless you actually leave the vicinity of your practice (generally 500 miles is the minimum safe distance) vacation does not translate into time away from the office – rather, it translates into less time in the office (or dealing with client matters) and a more relaxed dress code. How much less time is highly variable and is highly dependent on the number of fires that crop up – rural clients understand that about the need to grab a little time away from the office from time to time (especially when the days are sunny, the fish are biting, or there’s hay to put up) and know that if you are on vacation, phone calls and e-mails may not always be returned the same day, but closings have to be done, bills have to be paid, invoices have to be sent, and court dates have to be made even if they do encroach on your time off. My latest vacation was about par for the course – 4 half days in the office and 2 half days working from home out of 10 working days away.
The upshot was that I had plenty of time to clear various assorted bits flotsam and jetsam out of the barn, garage, house, and my mind with time left over to put up first crop hay. Nothing like physical labor and the relative quiet of the rural country side to clear out the noise of the e-mail, cell phone, social media connected world. By the end, I was ready to head back to the practice ready to dive into this summer’s version of adventures in solo practice – that is until my 5:00 AM greeting by a highly affectionate and horrendously odoriferous dog snapped my synapses out of my vacation induced bonhomie. There is nothing quite like a freshly skunked dog to focus one’s attention – no slow immersion into the work-a-day world, this is the jump-in-the-deep-end-oh-man-that-water’s-cold introduction to reality. This morning’s activities became focused on the single task of reducing the pungent cloud currently enveloping the dog without transferring it to those of us who would shortly be interacting with other people. There is little that can actually remove skunk smell from dog hair (only time can do that), the best one can hope for is to get to it while it is still fresh and remove enough of it so that the dog’s mere presence no longer brings tears to one’s eyes. It’s a battle best fought with degreaser, baking soda, and elbow grease – the folk remedies of tomato juice and peppermint mouthwash simply leave the dog smelling like a bowl of Tabbouleh that’s gone off.
Balance 0, skunk 1