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.