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

A Letter to a 1L

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your e-mail. It is quite heartening to know that there are other souls out there with an interest in practicing in rural communities. There is no one way or single resource that will best prepare you for a career as a rural lawyer – based on my conversations with rural lawyers from across the country, I am coming to the conclusion that each rural lawyer’s career is unique to that lawyer and to the community they serve. What I can offer are some general observations intertwined with a smattering of  “were I to do it over agains” .

Since you had a few questions about business management, I assume that you are considering embarking on a career as a rural solo (though don’t discount the value being well versed in business management will have to a existing small rural practice). There are a number of fine books out there that cover going solo from the lawyer’s perspective (Jay Foonberg’s How to Start and Build a Law Practice and Carolyn Elefant’s Solo by Choice spring to mind) but if you want to learn about the ins and outs of running a business get in touch with SCORE – they offer mentoring, webinars, newletters, guides and live classes all designed to help you start and grow a business; all provided at little to no cost by SCORE volunteers (working or retired business owners, executives and corporate leaders). I wish I had connected with SCORE about 12 months before I opened my practice rather than 12 months after. Continue reading

The Rural Lawyer’s Imperative

Dear Thomas,

Your comment touches on the essential imperative of the rural lawyer’s (in fact any solo lawyer’s) career – the need to earn a living while building a practice. It is a career in which one trades security for autonomy and where survival is based as much on  ingenuity and enterprise as it is legal expertise. It is also a career that does not, necessarily, have to be done solo.

So, you need to ask yourself – do you really want to go rural solo or are you simply looking for a legal career in a rural area? While it may take some leg-work and a bit of networking to track them down, there are small rural law firms out there that are looking to hire new associates. These are the kinds of jobs you find through a friend of a friend of a friend or discover through a one-line classified ad on a state bar’s web site. These are also the kinds of jobs that will expect you to be somewhat productive from day one (so as a 2L, you may want to start volunteering at your local legal aid office).

If you are planning on going solo be prepared for hard work and little else. During the first few years of a solo career, 80% of your time is going to be spent on marketing your practice, 15% practicing law, and 5% on administrative tedium. During the first 6 months almost 100% of your time is going to be spent on marketing. Going solo out of school adds an additional layer of complexity to the mix – you have to learn the practice of law along with the business of law. Going rural solo is yet another step up on the complexity scale. A rural lawyer’s key relationships are those with people who can send him/her clients and building these community relationships takes time. With the exception of the rural kid returning to practice in his/her home town, start-up rural lawyers often locate their homes in rural communities and their practices at the edge of suburbia – think of this as “working on the edge looking out”. The thinking behind this type of mixed-clientele (rural + city) practice is that the resources of the big city (large potential client base, availability of mentors, etc) help sustain the practice and the practitioner thus providing time to build a rural referral network.

It is possible to go solo, it is possible to go solo out of school, it is possible to go rural solo out of school – just be prepared and go in with your eyes wide open and have a plan – know who your perfect client is, how you are going to reach that perfect client, what you will offer that perfect client, why that client should hire you, and where you differ from all the other lawyers out there.  Don’t be surprised to find that it will take a couple of years before you can meet both parts of the rural lawyer’s imperative – but don’t be surprised when you turn around one day and find that it sneaking up on you.

There is a need and opportunity out there in the night sky, even for the debt-ridden, newly fledged lawyer. The key is to be innovative, be enterprising, and think like an entrepreneur. There are options and resources out there to help you manage your debt, find mentors, set up a cost-effective, low-cost law practice, to do find free or low-cost legal research, to learn both the business and practice of law. It is within reach, it has its risks, it is possible, and if you can make that initial leap of faith you can do it.

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