Monday, September 13, 2010

Report: Rural Areas Positively Brimming with Legal Work

There’s been a lot of shitty advice thrown out to desperate law grads recently about how they can beat the odds and build a law practice. One that will at least allow them to buy a case of Ramen noodles every two weeks to fend off starvation. Last week’s horrible advice to the forlorn masses was for them to hike up their sleeves and head out to the peaceful country roads of rural America. To hear Eric Cooperstein tell it, rural America is a forgotten little place where jobs are plentiful, people are laid back, and every little country hamlet is just brimming with well-to-do country gentlemen in dire need to legal services. Well, Scammed Hard! readers, let’s pack Ma and the young’ns in the truck and hit the open road to seize some of this opportunity for ourselves!

The advice-giver in question happens to be a Minnesotan, just like yours truly, so I feel particularly well-qualified to riff on the “opportunities” he’s referring to. Being from this state, I have fairly easy access to what most people would consider “the country,” and actually enjoy getting out of the suburban-sprawl purgatory of the Twin Cities as often as possible. I've even got relatives who are rural residents and farmers, the very people that Mr. Cooperstein claims are desperate to throw money at young law grads in order to solve all of their pressing legal problems.

I have always had a bit of an affinity for the rural life, and long ago decided to target my job search to these areas. I would plaster every state trial court in flyover country with applications, I would turn down no job posting from even the smallest firm in West Bumfuck. The job posting for a gig with the public defender’s office in the most flown-over of flyover counties has six typos in as many lines of text, and was even willing to do interviews at the "law schol" for students who had particularly good "writiting skills?" No problem, that’s the job for me! Well, so far it hasn’t panned out. Your Top-20 law school credentials are not going to wow the trial court or local shitlaw office out in the sticks. More than likely, yours was one of 200 resumes they received for the same $40k/year position. Or, as this commenter on Mr. Cooperstein's piece put it,
I did the long commute to my cushy job in St. Paul for 4 years on a half-time basis before deciding I needed to find a career I could do in a small town. I decided to go to law school. I graduated, passed the bar, and had an offer to join a nice small-town firm. The offer fell through. The firm does not have enough work to add another person. I decided to do a full job search. The public defender jobs have been extremely tight. They have had to lay off veterans. A nice prosecutor position had 150 applicants. A law clerk position had 100 applicants. Long-time solo practitioners are scrambling for work. I have decided to go back to my big-city line of work where there are still plentiful jobs that pay more than twice what a local law position would. Sorry to sound negative, I wish the article had been true for me.

In this tapped-out economy, there are only so many ideas that the tens of thousands of unemployed J.D.s who make up the Lost Generation can pursue. Broadening their horizons to rural areas where they thought their credentials might have given them a leg up on the competition was probably one of their first thoughts. It certainly was one of mine. This “head west, young man” claptrap is not a unique and worthwhile idea to share with the young jobless. Trust me, after several years of scrounging the country for any legal job that will allow us to pay off our student loans, we’ve already given the rural life a hard look.

A big part of this "go rural" pitch is that “the economics can work.” The cost of living in small towns is much less than in the big city. This is true, but a would-be country squire needs to square these “favorable” economics with the fact that most rural areas can be rather rustic and impoverished. For every farmer who is sitting pretty on his $1,000-acre dirt, there are as many farmers struggling to get by. It’s not just farmers who live in “the country,” either. There are plenty of folks who work at the local meatpacking plant, calendar factory, or corn cannery, who make $12/hour and are prime targets for your overpriced legal services. Don’t get discouraged if you fail to land a roster full of big-money farmers with money to burn for your “business advice” and “estate planning” services.

Let’s take a look at the heaping loads of paid legal work that await anyone with the gumption to put on their boots and travel a little ways off of the beaten trail:

“The folk in small towns sometimes get divorced, commit the occasional DWI, and get in car accidents. They need local lawyers and they do not want to pay for some lawyer from the city to drive out to the rural courthouse to represent them. They need trusted advisors they can form life-long professional relationships with. That could be you.”

As long as you can beat out the lawyers from the many other local law offices, and attract clients despite having no connection to the local town and without the benefit of years practicing there getting to know people and making a name for yourself. Don’t let the fact that many of your potential clients are genuinely at or below the federal poverty line, and thus unlikely to ever pay up for your work on their divorce, DWI, or car accident, discourage you. Let’s see what other perks await the small-town lawyer.
“There are many benefits to practicing in a smaller community. First off, there is plenty of work to do. All those farms you pass as you drive that two-lane road into the country? That farmland is worth several thousand dollars an acre in many areas. Those farm families need estate plans, contracts, and business advice. There are teachers, small business owners, bankers, and other professionals as well.”

There is plenty of work to do, once you wrest a little from the tremendous loads of competition and price yourself in the competitive range of $10/hour. Life in rural areas is often tough and hardscrabble, and frugality and self-help are bywords for many farm families. Paying some egghead lawyer to hash out contracts or give them “business advice” runs contrary to all of the skills and habits that a lot of these farm families have relied on to make a living. Having people in my extended family who are farmers, I’d also like to take a moment to dispel the notion that there are just loads of farmers whose land is worth thousands of dollars an acre who are waiting for someone with a J.D. to come in and solve all of their problems. Yes, there are areas with rich, fertile farmland like this. A quick Google search of the nearest small town to a family member’s farm that is fairly productive reveals there are eight law offices for a town of 3,000 people. Expanding the search to include the entire county that the farm is located in, any farmer with cash to burn on legal services has his pick of at least 30 lawyers within easy driving distance to solve his problem, many of whom have the added benefit of decades of experience in the community and a stranglehold on business. You shouldn’t let that discourage you, though, I’m sure your smiling face would convince any old farmer to hire you instead of a local. That, or dropping your rate to $8/hour.

That’s to say nothing of the many, many rural areas where the soil quality sucks, but people still farm. The area where some of my other extended family comes from would be a prime example. There are farmers up there who routinely will trade fields or make an informal agreement to rent or till someone else’s land. There are no contracts, no papers, and most importantly no need for overpriced legal services. (Although I’m pretty sure that any price is far too much for many of these hard-up folk.) It would be great if they had real agreements drafted by a lawyer, but it's not going to happen.

One small town job that I applied to in particular is perhaps representative of these “golden, unpicked opportunities for smalltown smalllaw. The town is two hours from any city of noteworthy size. It is even a good 30 miles from an interstate highway. The farmland is of mediocre quality at best. It did have a nice lake, though, and 2,500 people, with a median family income of $35,000. It also has eight law offices, including one where the two lawyers are former biglaw associates who had the same idea to “get country.”

Even in the decidedly salt-of-the-earth zone where some of my kin hail from, which is consistently the poorest or second-poorest county in the state, they're still flush with lawyers. In this godforsaken town of 3,000 souls, where almost every business on Main Street is boarded up, there are still nine law offices. I’m sure that one more bright-eyed young scamp from the big-city law school will really turn things around out there. They will be able to compete with these fellows and earn a decent living in the meantime. I could go on and on with examples of how, despite being genuinely poor and unable to supply the kind of business that lawyers need, these rural areas are already packed to the gills with underworked lawyers.

You know that old Mark Twain-esque line about how one lawyer in a town will starve, but two lawyers will get rich? Small town lawyering is kind of like that, except with about 10 times more lawyers, and a lot less getting rich. Take literature’s favorite small-town lawyer, Atticus Finch. Noble guy, does the right thing and wins the respect of his fellow citizens. He also was paid for his legal work with sacks of hickory nuts, and when he wasn’t earning those glitzy fees, he was working for free on the Tom Robinson case. In fact, I don’t think I recall ever seeing old Atticus do any legal work where he was paid in real, legal tender.

Lest the prospective rural lawyer become discouraged about the lack of opportunities for coin out on the prairie, there are still ways to keep from starving. The barter system is alive and well in rural America, and can offer you a wide array of helpful services. Lots of people in rural America who have tillable land will let their farming neighbors plant it in exchange for a few bales of hay and snow-plowing services in the winter. Win-win! There is, of course, no legal document solidifying this arrangement, because no one up in God’s Country will pay for legal services. These, after all, are your “clients,” people who need to rent land or contract for services. They still won’t pay you or even stop by your office, however, and you will be glad you kept those extra sacks of hickory nuts to get you through the long winter.

I really hope that the many tens of thousands of unemployed J.D.s out there are still revved up to leave city livin’ behind and become the respectable small-town Esquire they always wanted to be. The economics are brutal, the opportunities scant, and the competition will be stiff to get any paying cases. Still, that’s gotta be better than your shallow urban lives working doc review in an office basement, right? (Even though doc review doesn’t really exist anymore.) As Mr. Cooperstein notes, “In tough economic times like these, some new lawyers may want to open their minds to a different type of risk and go west—or north, or south, or east—to find a job beyond their urban dreams.” I couldn’t have said it better myself…and I hear that hickory nut cookies can be pretty palatable.

22 comments:

  1. The good people I know in rural zones pay their bills religiously. Literally, it is part of their faith to be responsible with money. They balance their checkbooks to the penny and go crazy by accounting mistakes. Maybe there isn't much legal work, but don't be so prejudiced against them...

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  2. I nearly starved working in a small town as a law clerk. The small law office my former boss had was always in the red and her checks didn't always have the funds to support them. Yes we were occasionally paid with bartered services from our customers, there was always some excuse why check wasn't in the mail or bounced. Also we did pro-bono favors for local court judges since that was seemed to be in the law firms long term strategic interest. Although my fondest memories of working in the law are in that small town office, I do love having a steady paycheck now.

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  3. Don't forget that the rural town lifestyle may be devastating to a young lawyer. Small towns mean there are extremely limited options when it comes to dating, not just because there are so few people overall, but also because people there will tend to marry young. Any remaining attractive or intelligent people will have moved away.

    Most people consider having a family to be pretty important, so this is not only a job you don't want, but could also spell disaster for every other aspect of your life.

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  4. I hope Eric Cooperstein will respond. You just eviscerated him. Awesome post.

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  5. Yes, the rural areas are positively brimming with legal work. Sure they are, and Salma Hayek absolutely sang to the rooftops - after I gave her 16 orgasms in rapid succession. How can these idiots even bring themselves to write such nonsense?!

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  6. I am related to a country lawyer. I don't know anything about being paid in hickory nuts. That's probably just fiction. I do know that you have to be a farmer and know a mechanic to practice law in the country. Once he was paid in chickens, and he also accepted a junk car as payment once.

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  7. Coming from a small town of like 4000 where there are already 5-6 lawyers, I'd like to know where the heck this extra work is going to come from.

    Personal injury? From corn cribs, maybe, but less traffic = fewer fatalities/injuries. Med-mal? Fewer hospitals + farming surgery to bigger cities = limited medmal case work. Divorce? Rural people have the lowest rate in the country, by far. Consumer law? Credit cards are less frequently used in rural areas; companies like Capital One and HSBC are less likely to market there, which means fewer collections claims. Corporate law? Ha. Environmental law? Good luck fighting zoning ordinances at good ol' boy's city council meetings. Criminal law? My hometown has had one murder in the last 30 years and 99% of criminal cases are misdemeanors where the judge and DA know the defendant, so it's an easy, routinized system with little room to squeeze your strange lawyerin' ways in.

    Good luck eeking it out on speeding tickets, wills, and the random "big one," and that's only if you get it instead of the other 4-5 lawyers hanging around.

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  8. I suppose property boundary line disputes between Farmer Johnson and Farmer Smith will only stretch so far.

    Don't forget industrial accidents and Worker's Comp. Many WC statutes- especially in the Midwest, South, and American Southwest provide PATHETIC payouts. I forget the exact compensation rate in Iowa, for a worker who loses his arm on the job, but it was something like $45K. While you may not need to invest tons of your own money for expert witnesses - since you will be in front of an ALJ - will this work be worth that big-ass $15K payday?!?!

    Lastly, don't forget that farm workers are typically not covered by WC statutes, as they are politically anemic due to their status as destitute workers.

    But, yes, go out and enjoy practicing law in rural America. After all, someone has to use their "vast reservoir of legal knowledge" to keep Johnson's cows from grazing on Smith's land. Realistically, the best gig in small-town legal practice is as a prosecutor or judge. But also take into account that small counties are all suffering cutbacks in staff and budgets.

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  9. You guys will make good lawyers one day because you can take a look at any set of facts and always find a way to argue your position.

    For example, you always find a way to argue the most negative and defeatist position about your situation and about how bad the legal profession sucks. When people make a reasonable suggestion, you treat it as an opposing argument in your Socratic law debate and find ways to shoot it down and explain why it won't work.

    My office mate, in Chicago, just settled a PI case for $350k. Last week he just closed a PI client that he estimates is worth $500k. I'm litigating a patent case on contingency that I estimate will settle north of $1.5M. We're all small firm "shitlawyers". BTW, We have no bosses. No one tells us what to do.

    There are a lot of lawyers and this economy sucks. Law schools lie about employment and then refuse to teach you anything of value. It takes years to learn to do it right; and most don't. But this is a profesion where, to a large extent, you make your own success.

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  10. Yes, Mr. Alger, we can all make huge successes out of ourselves. Let's all of us 45,000 law graduates per year just grab our bootstraps and PULL, really hard! Each and every one of us will have six-figure PI cases beating down our doors in no time.

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  11. I sympathize with you for being unemployed in a saturated market during a horrible recession. Furthermore law schools lied about employment and, worse, failed to teach anything of substance so you don't even know how to write a will or plead a DUI for some money.

    But the greatest danger is your own attitude. Your focus should be on your own career, not 45,000 other graduates.

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  12. There is nonetheless great value and social good in warning the living hell out of still-naive pre-laws of the dangers inherent in the JD.

    Attitude be damned.

    I'm working, full-time, thank you, in the non-legal world, paying my bills and producing value. I have a RIGHT to call attention to the law school scam.

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  13. I don't think anyone is criticizing the good people who live in rural areas. I live in one, and I absolutely love it and the people I live around and wouldn't consider living anywhere else. I have lived in the big city and hated it and all the crap attitudes of the people there. And I disagree that there are no smart or attractive people here; there are a lot of both but I guess if your idea of a good man is someone with integrity, industriousness and fortitude and not a Porsche-driving, Armani-wearing asshole, maybe a good man is indeed "hard to find," in the words of Flannery O'Connor (one of our local legends out here).

    But, I will say that I have tried to be a lawyer in a rural area and it did not work out because as people above mentioned, there are "town lawyers" that have built practices up long before I was born and have sons and grandsons who have taken them over. If you do work in rural America, you will generally get the crap cases and by crap I mean that they don't pay. "Paying your dues" doesn't work when you're starving to death and could make more working at the local diner. My child doesn't give a damn if I'm paid in the form of an old car or some other bartered item; that isn't putting food into his mouth.

    One thing you will notice if you decide to come out to the hinterlands and practice is that your clients make a ton more money than you do, even if they WON'T pay you. The everyman and everywoman who are divorcing both decided to take jobs and work themselves up to decent livings after high school, much like their parents. They didn't chase some crappy dream of "being somebody" down a rabbit hole like I did. They all own homes and though they may have married young, their kids have most anything they want. I had to borrow money so my child could have a couple of birthday presents when I was "practicing." They may have taken an LPN or HVAC course at the county vo-tech, but that's it in the way of higher ed and they aren't saddled with the debt we are. I wish I'd taken that path - smart or not, ambitious or not. I envy them, I really do.

    I am negative only because I see that I made a huge mistake going into law but I'm very positive about my life and career outside of law. Since I gave up that pipe dream, I have been much more happy and productive.

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  14. Oops, I meant if you prefer the Porsche and Armani having asshole to the everyman then there may be no good men. Fail on that literary play on words...

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  15. One thing that hasn't been mentioned so far in this discussion of CountryLaw is that in many counties in the rural South, most of the white professional people in the county are related to one another by blood or marriage, and the black professionals have a smaller, but very similar kinship network. If these people have any sort of legal case, the first thing that they are going to do is to discuss it for free with their cousin. The cousin may end up referring the case to someone better qualified to handle it, but it won't be YOU. You'll never be a full-fledged member of the community, because in a town with one elementary, one middle school, and one high school, the friendships are very close, especially when the friends are first, second, or third cousins to start with. Your children will be accepted as members of the community if they live there from an early age and end up marrying somebody local, but it will be tougher for you.

    I have had several aunts and uncles retire to the boondock area of their birth, after spending their working lives elsewhere. Only one of the couples lasted more than five years before moving elsewhere. The wife of the couple who made it told me that the difference was that she made sure that they joined a church as soon as they arrived, even though they had not been church people in the big city. The church gave them an instant social network, and they built on that. But I was surprised that things didn't work out for the other couples, as they all had a LOT of family and former classmates living in the area.

    If you get offered a job in Hooterville, you should take it, and try hard to fit in with the locals, but moving to the sticks to hang out a shingle is a bad, bad idea. It might work out if your spouse has a decent job in a small town, and you hang out a shingle, but without a spouse's steady paycheck, you will STARVE.

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  16. There are jobs out there, just not for lawyers because the market is saturated with lawyers right now. Too many law schools are opening up and too many people are going to law school. The creates an oversupply of lawyers and the demand is not there. Also, the legal industry is also outsourcing some legal functions to India.

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  17. The author of this blog and some commenters obviously never have learned the rich lessons of rural America: hard work, honesty, and community, to name a few.

    The ones who do the best are the ones who people know and trust. It takes time and a positive attitude. But, it can be done.

    Quit whining and get to work.

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  18. Holy Moly. What a group of shitty attorneys we have here. A license to practice law = a license to print money. When I graduated in 2009, I couldn't find a job. What did I do? I worked hard & now do pretty well for myself. Getting the first couple of clients was hard...people don't have much reason to go to the new guy. Do a good job & things will work out. Satisfied clients lead to more clients.

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  19. Holy Moly. What a group of shitty attorneys we have here. A license to practice law = a license to print money. When I graduated in 2009, I couldn't find a job. What did I do? I worked hard & now do pretty well for myself. Getting the first couple of clients was hard...people don't have much reason to go to the new guy. Do a good job & things will work out. Satisfied clients lead to more clients.

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  20. I agree with anonymous above. You either do or you don't and attitude is more than half the battle. Not to mention that, frankly, it doesn't take a ton of work to "eek" out a living as a small town attorney, i.e., just 12-15 hours of work per week at $100-$150 per hour winds up being between $62000-$115,000 per year.

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  21. Man your a whiny punk... Boohoo I can't a job, anyone who gives me tips sucks, law school school sucks boohoo.

    As for rural work...farmers "getting by" are you fucking high? Do you actually know any farmers? Minneaota acreage is 10k/acre farmers are literally rolling in money. Poverty line? What the fuck planet are you on kid? Have you done a DWI? A divorce? A real case? They find the money for serious problems.

    If your not an idiot a law license is a license to print money. Case in point, I graduated 4th tier school 50%, I own a firm and make nearly $300k don't work weekends and am home by 6, perhaps if you quit bitching on a blog and get to work you can actually pay tstudent loans.

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