Pax maternum, ergo pax familiarum*

Ghost Town, Bodie California

If this ain't the middle of nowhere, you can see it from here

It has been pointed out to me that, perhaps, one reason lawyers are not flocking to small towns is that a spouse or significant other may be reluctant to leave their career behind. Fair enough; jobs are tough to come by in this economy and it is perfectly understandable that someone would prefer keeping a sure thing over haring off into the middle of nowhere – even if it is a particularly scenic middle of nowhere. But this may not be the hurdle it appears to be. So if your SO is still talking to you after you first broached the idea of a rural practice, here are a few options: Continue reading

Where, oh where are you tonight?

Where, oh where, are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over, and I thought I’d found true love,
You met another, and PFFT! You was gone!Marian B. Yarneall

The rural lawyer may not be your true love, but it does seem that they are going PFFT! The good news, according to this article in the Argus Leader and this one in the Rapid City Journal, is that at least one state bar association is taking notice of the problem and starting to do something about it. The South Dakota Bar is creating Project Rural Practice to address that state’s decline in rural lawyers and, in conjunction with community leaders, to find incentives that will attract lawyers to the small towns of rural South Dakota. Many, many kudos to the South Dakota Bar.

Now, I’m one of those people who think that packing up and heading to rural South Dakota to practice law would be an interesting adventure (but then I’m also of the opinion that good neighbors are live a quarter-mile away, it is feasible to raise a calf (for a brief period) in your kitchen, and that starting a solo practice in a recession is a boffo career move), thus my idea of an incentive may be a bit biased and more readily negotiated than those of a normal person.

What would incite you, dear reader, to pack it up and head to the wind-swept prairie? Some things to consider after the break.

Continue reading

Follow up: Yesterday’s Myths, today’s needs

Thomas and I have been having an e-mail conversation over my post “Yesterday’s myths, today’s needs“, and with his permission, I am posting a few of his insightful comments regarding the state of the rural solo down in Texas. Any errors in grammar, punctuation or spelling are due to my faulty transcription (Thomas you have my apologies & I’ll give some thought to your suggested post topic).

I think that most of the people who spread the misconceptions about rural law practice are, frankly, lawyers who aren’t making money in the big city and use these myths as excuses for not opening a rural practice.  “Oh, I’m struggling now, but think how bad I would have it if I practiced out in the country!”

You’re right that the rural bar is aging and many lawyers are retiring (although some of them don’t… there was a story about a lawyer in Weatherford, TX, who died in the past year at the age of 101 and practiced law pretty much up until the day he died.)  I’m 27 and relatively few people in my generation (particularly relatively few lawyers) grew up in a small town, so there are far fewer people my age with the contacts already built up that they think are necessary to build a small-town practice.

And there’s also far less competition from the big-city lawyers than one might assume.  In the county seat 40 miles from Dallas and Fort Worth where I practice, it’s very rare to see lawyers from either of those cities in the courthouse.  Although, these aren’t exactly small towns any more… more like exurbs.  I still need to move farther out.

In fact, the good ol’ boys network tends to be a lot more prevalent in these sorts of towns than in real small towns — where the local attorneys, particularly the older ones (who have been practicing there since it was a dot on the map), feel a bit threatened by the big-city lawyers who might poach their cases.  This is particularly true as suburban and exurban cities grow and the new people feel less identification with the town.  So, for example, the county has a rule that in order to get on the list for court-appointed cases, 80% of your pending cases must be in this county — obviously a move designed to keep Dallas lawyers from getting on the “wheel.”

The Texas Bar has a lot of information about its lawyers posted online, so I thought it would be good to look at some of the information. According to the state bar, the average lawyer in Texas is 48 years old and has been licensed to practice for 18 years.  They also have information on the six largest counties in the state:

  • Harris County (Houston): 47/17 years
  • Dallas County: 47/17 years
  • Tarrant County (Fort Worth): 48/17 years
  • Bexar County (San Antonio): 49/18 years
  • Travis County (Austin): 47/16 years
  • El Paso County: 50/20 years

Considering that 57 percent of the state’s lawyers have their office in one of three counties (Dallas, Harris, Travis), and in all three of those the average lawyer is younger than the state average… yeah, that means that the average lawyer outside the major cities is older.  (El Paso’s a bit of an outlier, but then it’s not really the kind of place that young lawyers are dying to go to…)  Overall, two thirds of the state’s lawyers practice in the five largest counties.

Well, I looked into the county where I currently reside, its average lawyer is 45 and has been licensed 15 years.  So that’s actually a more extreme example of where the younger lawyers are going. On the other hand, in three smaller cities in west Texas — Abilene, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls, all of which have a population around 100,000 — the average lawyer is 55 and has been licensed for 25 years.  So half the lawyers in those cities will be hitting retirement age in the next decade.  (Abilene actually has a lot of younger lawyers as well, though… evidently not many lawyers set up shop there in the 1980s and 1990s, for whatever reason.)

Reviewing the last century

This post marks the first century of my odd ramblings about practicing as a solo out in rural America and I thought I’d mark the occasion by reviewing some of the topics I’ve covered. Rather than doing it through my eye’s, I thought I’d let the words of a keen observer of humanity do it for me, a man who once observed that “Adults are just obsolete children” and whose nonsense has helped to wake up our brain cells and enabled us to laugh at life’s realities – Dr. Seuss.

To keep things straight, the good doctor’s words are in italics. Continue reading

Be a Rural Lawyer, Success Guaranteed – only 49.99 + s/h Special TV Offer Only

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasmSir Winston Churchill

There are fifteen steps that, if followed precisely and in the correct order, will guarantee your small town law practice will be a successful, profitable enterprise. Unfortunately, the last person who knew what these steps is also the only person on record to have found a way to successfully transmute lead into gold. So, rural entrepreneur, you will have to be satisfied with these few suggestions to ease your way between failures.

Get paid up front

I cannot claim credit for this – this is, after all, Foonberg Rule #1. Discussing fees and collecting a retainer is the first of many difficult conversations you will have with clients, but it is something that must be done and is necessary if your practice is to thrive. It is far easier to get paid up front than it is to try to collect when all is said and done. If you aren’t collecting fees, you are doing pro-bono work and that is simply an expensive way to fail slowly. Develop a reputation for providing quality service at a reasonable price and most rural clients are not going to quibble about the price; but they also aren’t going to volunteer to pay it either – you’ve got to ask.

Give it everything you’ve got

This is more than just a reminder about working hard, in a small town there is little distinction between the profession and the professional – what you do is part and parcel of who you – so accept that you are going to be a lawyer 24/7/365 regardless of what your office hours are. Until you are established as a community fixture, you and your business are going to be evaluated, weighted and measured. You are going to be always building your reputation, so give this endeavor everything you’ve got and use every skill you have. After you are established as a community fixture – you’ll still be a lawyer 24/7, you and your practice will still be evaluated, weighted and measured, and you still have to maintain your reputation, but at least now folks will have funny stories about the day you… to tease you with – this is a good sign, it means you’ve been accepted. Continue reading