The small towns and rural areas of Oregon have a problem and are looking for a few lawyers willing to put up with flexible hours, a good work/life balance, and opportunities to build a satisfying career in order to solve it. What they have are unmet legal needs, what they want a lawyers willing to take on the challenge.
Based on research done by the Oregon State Bar, there is a significant age discrepancy in the rural attorney population – young lawyers (those under 40) make up less than 25% of the rural bar while older lawyers (those over 60) constitute upwards of 50%. The end result is that over the next 5 to 15 years rural areas and small towns are looking at losing a significant proportion of their lawyers through retirement.
Fortunately, the Oregon State Bar is working on finding ways to address this issue and to encourage young lawyers to develop permanent practices in these areas and they are doing it at an ideal time – as Richard Spier, Oregon State Bar President, points out, there are opportunities in rural Oregon for lawyers willing to make the move; there are established lawyers willing to provide mentorship, referrals, introductions, and advice and there is often more work than the established lawyers can handle.
see also: Outside the Urban Box by Cliff Collins
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.
While the senior leadership of the Georgia Bar Association work on plans for a lawyer incubator (a small pilot program) and a rural lawyer assistance plan (now in the hands of the state legislature), the bar’s Young Lawyers Division have launched the Succession Planning Pilot Program with the idea of matching successful, practicing, small city or rural lawyers with young lawyers and recent graduates looking for positions.
The program leverages existing resources available at the state’s law school’s career services and addresses two of the chief concerns of a fledgling rural lawyer – the lack of mentors and the need to develop a sustainable practice – while giving established rural lawyers a pipeline of interested, qualified successors.
A Rural Lawyer tip of the hat to small town lawyer Sharon Edenfield for bringing this idea to fruition.
Even if one counts judges, prosecutors, public defenders, county and city attorneys and all the other categories of lawyers not generally available to the general public, there would still be 6 counties in Georgia that lack lawyers and a couple of dozen counties with fewer than 5 lawyers (see this article).
So, on Saturday, the State Bar of Georgia Board of Governors approved a plan to attract private civil attorneys to rural areas by offering state-funded repayment of law school loans to any attorney who moves to an underserved rural community. Even through the plan was described as “a great idea”, “a great idea”, and “mom & apple pie” it’s passage was not without some debate (see this article).
Frankly, these types of assistance programs are a good first step, but there needs to be more in place if young lawyers are going to succeed in rural practices; things like mentorship programs and community buy-in. It also would help if there were clear ethical guidelines on the use of technological innovations like client portals and virtual law offices. There needs to be an effort made to show the potential rural lawyer that practicing in a county that’s more pine barrens that people can be profitable, not just sustainable; that it can be a career rather than a set number of years of pro bono and ramen before moving on to better things and bigger law.
My hat’s off to the Georgia Bar for taking that first step. I wish them success and I hope they continue to help young lawyers build rural practices.
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