So, what does a state do when 65% of the state’s lawyers practice in 4 of the 66 counties and 19 counties have 2 or fewer practicing lawyers. Well, if you are the South Dakota Senate, you float a plan to subsidize law student tuition in return for a promise that these students will open a practice in a small town or rural county.
It’s a cool idea – the county in need ponies up 1/3 of the student’s school fees, the state’s Unified Judicial System covers the remainder and the student contracts to keep their grades up and upon graduating to live and practice in the supporting county for a set number of years – and, a good start to reversing the declining rural lawyer population – let’s hope it passes.
But realistically, this is just a first step (a good one, but a first one). It will take more than simply releasing a few dozen newly fledged lawyers out into the wild. If these future rural lawyers are to have a fighting chance to develop a thriving practice, they’ll need more than a debt-free education; these new lawyers are going to need mentors, help with the administrative side of things, and a good education in keeping their overhead low. I’m betting the SD Bar has some ideas on how to solve these problems as well.
Tip of the hat to The Daily Republic for reporting on this.
A tip of the hat to SD Rural Lawyer for pointing out Susan G. Fowler’s study: “Results of Participant Observation in the Fifth Judicial District,”
In this 2007, Ms. Fowler takes a look at the research needs of the average rural Kansas lawyer and finds that because the rural lawyer is a generalist, their research needs tend to be limited to the basics (case-law updates, statutory changes, access to state resources) and they do not spend a great deal of time or money on specialized research materials or access to expert opinions. All well and good if you are planning on how best to restore a rural law library so that it will best serve it’s clientele.
What interested me were Ms. Fowler’s observations on the information processing skill and daily activities of the rural lawyer (not that I participated in the study, seeing one’s day reduced to frequency counts by an outside observer is something of an out-of-body experience – the initial reaction of “it can’t be” is quickly followed by “now that I think about it…”). So, for those of you who have any doubts about the adrenaline-packed, action-filled, exciting life of the rural lawyer, you are absolutely right – the top 5 things rural lawyers do are:
- Talk on the phone (communication reduces surprises)
- Use a some form of technology to obtain or transfer legal information (the adaptive generalist is always relearning)
- Prep for court (there is a marked preference to settle out of court, but you never know…)
- work on a case
- build relationships (rural lawyers practice in small ponds – adversarial relationships are left at the courthouse door – so building professional/personal ties to the rural bar and to the community brings in business and establishes credibility)
Ms. Fowler also observed that rural lawyers are information power-users (constantly assessing information as they learn and relearn) and hard core multitaskers – though rural lawyers tend to be “time slicers” rather than “parallel processors” when it comes to multitasking; preferring to quickly switch between tasks (spending a few minutes on one before moving to the next) in a round-robin fashion. This form of multi-tasking seems to be facilitated by the rural lawyer’s preference for print rather than digital resources.
So there you have it – a brief look at the life of the rural lawyer through the eyes of the rural law librarian.
A quick update on the world of rural lawyering:
I recently ran across Jennifer Gumbel’s postings on Lawyerist.com (a tip of the hat to sdrurallawyer.com for pointing out a great resource right here in my back yard). Her article on legal “ruralsourcing” (outsourcing to small towns) shows that, once again, the internet opens up opportunities for rural lawyers. The low overhead of the rural lawyer combined with the almost instantaneous communication of the internet may make the rural lawyer the next “goto” source for document review, due diligence work, and freelance legal research. In a lighter vein, Ms. Gumbel’s “Observations on Rural Stereotypes” is good for a quick laugh.
Over on Greedy Associates, Andrew Chow recently posted on “Why you shouldn’t rule out rural law“. I’m honored to have this blog quoted so prominently. Thanks Mr. Chow.
Finally, there is a great thread over on jdunderground on the wisdom of going rural. You’ll have to sift through the snarky to get to the gems, but the thread is worth a read as there is some good common sense advice lurking there.
I must admit that I’ve never given a great deal of thought to the entire scope of a rural lawyer’s role in their community. After all, much of my focus has been on developing my practice, providing an effective service to my clients, and trying to make a profit without gaining too many new gray hairs, or going noisily insane and running amok though the neighbor’s corn fields. Fortunately, the folks over at SD Rural Lawyer have put some thought into the subject and have posted about the rural lawyer’s role as a catalyst for community development.
It appears that the small town lawyer can have an impact on their community beyond being a potential employer or the dollar recapture of shopping for office supplies locally. The article notes that the rural lawyer is in a unique position within the rural community; he brings a highly (one hopes) trained mind, an uncommon skill set and through the course of his practice develops a large network of social connections, an intimate awareness of his community’s and client’s needs, and an awareness of community dynamics. It is the synergy of all of these factors that can allow the rural lawyer to act as a catalyst for community development.
Read the complete article, it is a fascinating look at what else rural lawyers can do.
I’m trying to put together a list of law schools and bar associations that have or are developing programs aimed at getting law students and lawyers interested in practicing in small towns and rural areas. I know that there are programs either in place or in development in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, but I’d like to know if there are others out there. So, if you know of a program please drop me a line and help out this rural lawyer.