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.
South Dakota leads the way in recruiting rural lawyers. House Bill 1096 is now law and makes South Dakota the first state to have legislation designed to encourage lawyers to practice in rural areas.
Any South Dakota county with a 10,000 population or less and any attorney licensed in South Dakota is eligible to take part in the 4 year pilot program. The program provides a yearly incentive payment to the attorney and the attorney agrees to practice in the eligible county for at least 5 years. The pilot program is capped at 16 attorneys and enrollment closes on July 1, 2017.
So, what does a state do when 65% of the state’s lawyers practice in 4 of the 66 counties and 19 counties have 2 or fewer practicing lawyers. Well, if you are the South Dakota Senate, you float a plan to subsidize law student tuition in return for a promise that these students will open a practice in a small town or rural county.
It’s a cool idea – the county in need ponies up 1/3 of the student’s school fees, the state’s Unified Judicial System covers the remainder and the student contracts to keep their grades up and upon graduating to live and practice in the supporting county for a set number of years – and, a good start to reversing the declining rural lawyer population – let’s hope it passes.
But realistically, this is just a first step (a good one, but a first one). It will take more than simply releasing a few dozen newly fledged lawyers out into the wild. If these future rural lawyers are to have a fighting chance to develop a thriving practice, they’ll need more than a debt-free education; these new lawyers are going to need mentors, help with the administrative side of things, and a good education in keeping their overhead low. I’m betting the SD Bar has some ideas on how to solve these problems as well.
Tip of the hat to The Daily Republic for reporting on this.
In this month’s Canadian Lawyer, Bruce LeRose has an excellent article on the ongoing demise of rural lawyers in British Columbia and the steps the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association is taking to try to encourage new lawyers to take on the challenges of rural practice. Mr. LeRose points out two of the more serious factors contributing to the demise of the species: the march toward specialization (small towns simply don’t have the work to support the boutique lawyer – it’s breadth not depth that pays the bills) and the closure of small town courts (a problem that is rapidly marching toward my neck of the woods as the legislature’s economic priorities don’t include a fully funded judiciary). But for all the doom and gloom, there is hope.
The bright spot is that the B.C. Bar’s Rural Education and Access Program (REAL). Thanks to REAL, rural law firms are starting to hire new staff and about a third of those new hires are students or new lawyers. Through REAL, students are being introduced to rural law firms, the advantages of rural practice (networking is easier, overhead is lower, and success comes quickly through hard work and passion), and the personal benefits of small town living (an improved work-life balance, a family friendly supportive environment).
To read the full text of the article, click here.
The headline reads “Legal industry struggles push lawyers to small-town firms”, and the article opens with the doom and gloom – many small town clients have to drive over 100 miles one way to see an attorney, NALP reports a 27% drop in big city law firm jobs since 2009, new lawyers are graduating with heavy debt loads and low employment rates.
On the plus side, there are law schools and bar associations out there developing programs to connect new lawyers and law students with small towns. This particular article gives a tip of the hat to the programs being developed by the Kansas Bar Association, the University of Kansas Law School, and Washburn University Law School. Seems that the lawyers who are taking advantage of these programs are finding both employment and career satisfaction practicing law beyond suburbia’s sprawl.
While there may not be a stampede of new lawyers heading to the sticks, it does look like the trickle is starting to become a stream.