So, the rural lawyer population is dwindling and there is a legal desertification creeping across small town USA – so what, it can’t be that big a deal what with the internet, on-line legal services and all.
Yet, as Maria Kefalas points out in her book “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America,” the lack of lawyers (and other professionals) is one of those 10,000 cuts that can slowly kill a community. It seems that when little, common place things start to get a bit more difficult – things like: getting a divorce, managing a business, resolving civil disputes, or defending criminal cases – small towns take a hit; a lack of lawyers isn’t the death-blow, but it is a symptom of a potentially terminal disease.
This legal desertification can have a real economic impact. Based on a 2013 study by Dr. Joseph C. Von Nessen, your average lawyer has an economic multiplier of 1.6 or to put in slightly more concrete terms: if a lawyer spends $1000 a month to run his practice, the community sees $1600 in total economic activity. Granted, Dr. Von Nessen’s study only covered South Carolina and the numbers for your particular state may vary but the point is, lawyers feed small town economies.
Then there are the governmental costs; a lack of local lawyers means that small town governments and public entities (school boards, county commissioners, etc.) must pay outside lawyers to travel into town to handle local affairs. Rural courthouses are not exempt from these travel expenses – trying a case locally can mean paying for the judge’s, prosecutor’s, and public defender’s drive time. These costs can strain local budgets in the best of times.
Now the lack of a lawyer may not be much of a problem for those small bedroom communities that cluster around cities like chicks around a hen; after all the daily commute puts lawyers within easy reach. But for those small towns out beyond suburbia’s sprawl, where the drive time into the “city” is measured in hours, local lawyers matter.
There is a new resource out there for rural lawyers and the communities they serve. Rural Law is setting out to simplify access to legal information and solutions to rural america and the small town lawyers who practice there.
Currently, the web site concentrates on providing legal resources for the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The site provides links to quality resources as well as contact information for small town lawyers. The contact information is a bit sparse, but Patrick Burns, the lawyer behind Rural Law, is continuously adding new information as he discovers it (if you are a small town lawyer, you may want to give him a call and help build the network).
For those of you who have moved from their libraries into the digital domain, Becoming a Rural Lawyer is now available for Kindle.
In related news, I see that a used copy of my book is currently being listed at $116.17. While I am flattered that someone out there values my little tome so highly, I’d just like to point out that list price is still only $28.50 for a brand-spanking new one (contact me if you want an autographed version). So, not only can my book help you get your small town practice up and running, it’s an appreciable asset as well.
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
I have a fondness for rural courts even though my entire experience with actual litigation has been limited to a few uncontested matters in which my chief role was to greet the judge, confirm that the opposing party had been properly notified and still was not present, and thank the judge when everything concluded. Perry Mason I’m not.
For me, rural courthouses and the people who staff them (professionals all) still engender a sense of respect for tradition, for the law. They seem to demand an older (perhaps antiquated) ideal of courtesy and gentile behavior; these are, after all dignified buildings that still command a place of pride in their communities.