The RuralLawyer Book

Becoming A Rural Lawyer - A Personal Guide to Establishing a Small Town Practice by Bruce CameronWell, 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 (where I welcome your impressions of the book).

Rural Compensation

Fall is in full swing out here where the big woods meets the prairie and that means harvest is in full swing and that means that, with the exception of all things relating to football, grain yields, market prices, profits and losses are the primary topics of most casual conversations. The fall months also see an uptick in the rural lawyering business as clients look to close those little, optional matters like estate planning while the weather is still pleasant and cash comes a bit more readily to hand. Profits, losses and budgets are on a rural lawyer’s hit parade as well, for fall also brings sales reps for the phone books, the local school sports teams sponsorship opportunities, and the requests for various and sundry donations – everyone is aware of when cash is flowing through the community.

This fall, a small town lawyer passed away. I didn’t know him and were it not for the internet, I would have never heard of his passing. However, serendipity, the season, and the vagaries of a Google search led me to a small obituary in the Valley News Dispatch and got me thinking about how rural lawyers are paid. It’s true that a rural lawyer’s net income is less, perhaps substantially less than that of our big city, big firm counterparts – a fact that we hope is balanced by the fact that the cost of living is lower for those of us out here in the sticks. But does net income really sum up the totality of a rural practice’s earnings or is there something more to a rural lawyer’s compensation?

skyscrapers and smog anyone?

Now, I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a city sky line from a high-rise corner office and I must admit that my desk now sits in a window-less room in a building perched perilously close to the city limits and the ragged edges of suburbia, but when I step outside at the end of the day, I am rewarded with views like this:

It may just be me, but this always comes down as a plus in the compensation column.

But it is a couple of lines at the bottom of those few column inches spent on the passing of a lawyer that stick with me. The lines read in part: “The Valley News Dispatch will occasionally run obituary stories on notable local residents. They are news items…” In small towns, lawyers make a difference and their passing is newsworthy, not just noted by a paid listing in the back of the classifieds. Those column inches do more than simply mark the death of a small town lawyer, they’re the last installment on his compensation package.

Rest in peace Mr. Ambrose and thank you.

The Dark Night of the Solo

Once in the dark of night, Inflamed with love and wanting, I arose (O coming of delight!) And went, as no one knows, When all my house lay long in deep repose — Saint John of the Cross

One of the more nerve-racking things about public speaking is the wait between the speaking engagement and the receipt of the program evaluation sheets. It’s a giddily self-deluding period where, based on the positive feedback from the 3 people who talked to you in the 5 minutes between speakers, you are sure that all went well and that you are on the road to becoming the next great orator of our times. Then the evaluation sheets arrived and you realize that it will be some time before you are a threat to Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King or Emmeline Pankhurst. But, as often is the case, it is the comments and not the numerical evaluations that strike a chord , and it is one of these comments that I would like to take a moment to respond to. The writer states:

Rural [law] equals less rich (not necessarily ‘poor’). At age 28, I was desperate for a job, so I moved to a small town to work with an experienced attorney who is nearing retirement. Now, almost 7 years  later, I want to leave and will if I can. Modest income clients don’t (or won’t) pay attorney fees even though we charge much less per hour than attorneys in urban areas. Fact is, attorneys in rural areas make far less than in urban areas, often have bad clients, and can get better & more interesting jobs elsewhere. 

As our young writer has travelled halfway down life’s path, let me play Virgil to his Dante, and let our journey begin not in our Dante’s dark wood or in the proponent’s idealized celestial sphere, but rather at the foot of the craggy mountain of boots-on-the-ground reality. Young Dante,  I’ve yet to run across a lawyer (big city or small town) who has not had at least one the-grass-is-greener moment at some time or other in their career. Lawyering is a tough slog for anyone who gives half a damn about doing the best possible job they can for each client, and it sure doesn’t help that, for the average lawyer, it sure ain’t the high-paying, jet-setting, celebrity career the law school brochures described. Even I must admit to having the occasional lustful thought about packing it all in and heading off to look for a quiet associate’s position with a regular salary. However, if this is not merely a passing fancy but is one of those dark nights of the soul, then it is far better to move on to those greener pastures than to unhappily till the same dismal furrow. But before you go, talk to someone (a mentor, a friend, your local branch of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers); perhaps there are other options out there and it may be easier to fix what you have than to start something new.

The comment continues:

Continue reading

Sixty Pounds of Oats

When doing field work there comes a point, when keeping the tractor on course becomes automatic and the drone of the engine merges with the radio to produce a banjo punctuated white noise, that is marvelously conducive to deep thought and contemplation. As it is hay season here in Rural Lawyer land, there is plenty of field work to do. While baling, I found myself contemplating the supposed death of the billable hour and the various heirs to its throne.

As far as I can tell, the billable hour’s cause of death was a lack of value – that too little work was spread out over too much time and billed at too high a rate. And, if I understand the argument for using some type of alternative fee structure is that they replace the possibility for this kind of abuse with new and different possibilities for abuse Continue reading

$500 Worth of Law

In the 19th century, Benjamin Brewster summed up the essence of the billable hour debate as:

A lawyer starts life giving $500 worth of law for $5 and ends giving $5 worth for $500.

The key questions surrounding this issue boil down to: “what is all this advice worth” and “what are clients willing to pay”. As I see it, these are two sides of the same coin and regardless of how you want to get paid, there is a simple methodology for arriving at a pricing structure that will satisfy both the attorney and the client – accurately determine your daily rate and then give your clients full value.

The magic formula is: Continue reading