Country Lawyer 2.0 – Part 2: Changing Communities

0919-man-in-doorwayLike most rural communities, [Springfield has] seen some decline in population and some change in population mix in the sense that when we first started, it tended to be true that people were born here, lived here, and died here. Over the years we’ve seen more influx and more outflow of people. –Paul Muske



0919-Joellen-DoebbertJoEllen Doebbert

solo practitioner, Alexandria

As in Minnesota generally, the population living in the rural, lake-filled areas of west central Minnesota (Alexandria-Glenwood area) is becoming older. The recession hit this area about a year after the markets tumbled in 2008, and people tended to have less for “discretionary” spending, which often includes legal services. Although the economy appears to be strong now—if you look at the stock market—I sense uneasiness from clients and potential clients in terms of spending their money. There is underlying anxiety in the rural area about the economy and it is reflected in how people are choosing to spend their money.

0919-Barbara-HeenBarbara Heen

solo practitioner, Willmar

If you are going to practice in greater Minnesota, you need to be willing to think beyond law practice. The more involved I became in my community, the busier I became as a lawyer. Last summer I had a backlog of six to seven weeks of work I had taken in, and it was never-ending. It just kept rolling for seven or eight months. I had more work than I could do, which enabled me to hire an assistant, which was the greatest thing in the world. I think it’s attributable to community involvement. 

I have families of clients. People bring their parents to me, their kids to me, their nieces and nephews—it branches out. If you are thoughtful and fair and decent, you can practice indefinitely in greater Minnesota. I’ve never worked a 2,000-billable-hour year ever. You can do all right, but it’s an investment of time. I spend almost no money on marketing. It’s a lot of face time. It’s those winter health fairs and senior citizens’ fairs. Community involvement. It takes more time than money. Advertising does help, but I look back at my marketing budget over the years and it really hasn’t changed. The benefit to my practice from community involvement is the most significant impact.


0919-Steve-BesserSteve Besser

Dolan & Besser, Litchfield

There are a lot of people who really cannot not afford legal assistance at the going rate. Like I said, we do a lot of that. We don’t record pro bono here, but we get a lot of people stopping to ask a quick question. I don’t know that you’d find that in the Cities. I don’t think someone’s going to show up at Faegre Baker Daniels and say, I need to talk to a lawyer for a minute. [Laughs]

Litchfield is the county seat, 6,500 people. The town has changed. Some of the industry that’s come here has helped greatly. We’ve got a trailer manufacturer that has an assembly operation here. Doosan bought out a company that made attachments for Bobcat, and they’re also here. The towns that don’t have that don’t see a lot of people hang around. A lot of the young people have moved out. Some of the area towns outside Litchfield—Will [Dolan] and I serve as city attorneys for various towns, and there’s not a lot of work to be done there. Mostly it’s helping them if there’s some real property issue or advising them if there’s some zoning issue. But not a lot of activity in some of these towns. 

In the farming end of it, too, we’re noticing that in some of the farm leases we do, there are changes in how they’re structured based on the drop in commodity prices. The interesting thing is, you might think it’s a dreamy life in a small town, but believe it or not, there is constant flux, because you’re trying to keep up with the law and also the population is aging. In my church, at 66 years old I’m one of the young people. So we see a lot more estate planning work now. That has probably doubled since I joined the firm in ’98. 

Another interesting thing in a small-town practice is, we fight what I call the traveling salvation show attorneys. There are some lawyers who have set up estate planning practices. They’re usually out of a suburb in the Cities, and they come out and put on seminars and talk to people about estate planning and how they need a trust and they need to spend $1,995. We will oftentimes wind up talking to these people and telling them, you don’t need that. You’re being oversold. We end up either doing nothing for them or doing a little pro bono work there. 

A woman called me one time who had gone to one of these seminars and said, this lawyer just called and said I’m going to need to spend $21,000 on a probate unless I get this trust in place. I said, where are you living? She was living in an assisted apartment here in Litchfield. I said, do you have a lot of real estate? Oh no, I just live in this apartment. Do you have a lot of investments or money that you need to control? Just my Social Security check each month. And I told her, you don’t need to do a thing. You can put a transfer-on-death notation on your checking account, get a health care directive and a power of attorney, and you’ll be okay. 

Some of our work tends to be fighting misinformation and fraud. I suspect it goes on in the Cities, too, but in a small community you see it a little more at the firm, because people are more likely to call an attorney who they know personally.

And that’s another thing about a small-town practice—there’s a level of respect. Doctors and lawyers get lumped together here. In a small town reputation is important. And you know the saying: It takes years to build it up and a second to throw it away. That’s especially true in a small town. You’re continually under the microscope. We have a billboard that makes us visible and brings some chuckles sometimes, but that’s really our only advertising besides the entry in the phonebook. The rest is word of mouth. 

We are extremely busy. Our clientele is definitely aging, but we’re also getting young people. The encouraging thing for me is I’ve done a lot of business set-up work for young people who are starting to buy out the older people. So that should keep us going well into the future. 


0919-Molly-HinckenMolly Hicken

Cook County Attorney, Grand Marais

I’m involved with our local YMCA. I’m a fitness instructor there. So I’ll go on my lunch breaks one or two times a week to teach a class. And I’ll teach a couple of evening classes a week. I’m also on the board of our local radio station. But you won’t find me volunteering in the recovery community, for example, or for anything related to bringing people up from drug or alcohol addiction, because I’m very sensitive to the power and authority I have in my position. I don’t want people around me feeling intimidated by that.
They need to be able to freely share, and they wouldn’t want to share about a relapse in front of a prosecutor. 

Because I’m a transplant here, I’ve experienced living in a place where it’s really easy to go grocery shopping or to go to Target and I don’t have to drive five miles to the nearest convenience store or 20 miles to the nearest grocery store—which is the case for me, because I live in Lutsen. I can complain about all those inconveniences, but there are also many benefits to living in a small community. People are more accountable to each other. 

In my practice as a prosecutor, it’s a lot more difficult to draw a thick line between the good guys and the bad guys, because we are all each other’s neighbors. So I have prosecuted people in my neighborhood, contractors who’ve been in my home to get work done. You can’t just cut every single defendant out of your life and say, this is the good team and that’s the bad team—which I think tends to happen with prosecutors in larger communities. In our office everybody gets treated with the same level of respect, whether you’re charged with a crime or you’re a victim or witness of a crime. Because we are forced to continue to interact with everybody, whether they’re a defendant or a witness. So you learn to deal with conflict in a different way as an attorney. 

And if you can’t handle that—because the downside is that it can be uncomfortable to go into certain businesses while you’re prosecuting the son of that business owner for a major crime—you need to move back to the metro area or wherever. But there’s also benefit in your neighbors knowing you, because if you build trust with them, that will make your life easier and your job easier. 


0919-Paul-MuskePaul Muske 

Muske Suhrhoff & Pidde, Ltd., Springfield

Springfield has had a fairly stable population. Like most rural communities, it’s seen some decline in population and some change in population mix in the sense that when we first started, it tended to be true that people were born here, lived here, and died here. Over the years we’ve seen more influx and more outflow of people. There are more non-Springfield natives who live here in town. 

The farm economy has changed significantly in that we had the typical small family farms where people would farm 200 or 300 acres, and now we’re seeing 2,000-3,000-acre farms. Land values have increased significantly. When we came here $2,000 an acre was a high price for land, and we’ve seen it go up to $10,000 and now back down to $8,000-$8,500, which has complicated estate planning, of course.

0919-Michelle-Zehnder-FischerMichelle Zehnder Fischer

Nicollet County Attorney, St. Peter

We’re seeing different demographics of culture and race in our practice, and who we’re reaching with our work. We continue to reach out to different communities to have a dialogue about how we can work to address everyone’s needs. That’s a change I’ve seen in my 20 years. Our community has become much more diverse, and we have to be sure we’re aware of that diversity and reaching all individuals in our community. That’s one of the things we’re looking at with our victim/witness coordinator role. We’re making sure that our forms are available in Spanish, and making sure that we are addressing all the different language needs and getting our message to all the communities that we serve.


0919-Angela-SipilaAngela Sipila

solo practitioner, Virginia

There’s always been poor people. I grew up poor here. My family was on food stamps. But other people were too, and you still functioned at a lower middle-class standard of living. Nowadays folks on food stamps and benefits, they suffer. We weren’t suffering when I was little. There was enough to eat and the house was warm. I was happy to go to school. But now people have housing problems; they can’t stay put. Drugs—some people smoked pot and drank a lot of alcohol when I was a kid, but I didn’t see addiction disrupting families like I do now. Maybe it’s because I was a kid, maybe because women in the past effectively put up with bums, but even in high school I didn’t notice addiction disrupting families like I’m seeing it now. 

The gap—back when I was poor, everybody was poor [laughs], there was no gap. It wasn’t really poor. It was lower middle class. Now that gap is a different culture. The crisis of resources with the people I deal with, they don’t even have friends who can drive them somewhere half of the time. They can’t scrape up 20 bucks. They lose their driver’s licenses and they can’t get jobs. They can’t run a computer. The online culture has just now taken hold here, and there is a divide between the people who have a smartphone and have enough money to pay the bills, and those who just don’t. 

I think we are going to kings and queens and peasants again. The world started that way. Maybe that’s just the natural bias of human societies. I come from the peasants. A hundred years ago, when mines were mining the Iron Range, they would create housing for the workers. Very paternalistic. Here’s your little house, here’s your little garden. I just watched the PBS show Lost Iron Range. The companies controlled people to a mind-boggling extent, wanting them to not unionize. They paid them very little but they gave them a house, a society, and people were happy with that. That happened, and I can see company housing becoming a thing again, where everybody’s got their little trailer house and they show up to work 8-5 like they’re supposed to. 


0919-Steve-PeloquinSteve Peloquin

Peloquin Jenson PLLC, Park Rapids/Perham

In Park Rapids, we live near some of the poorest counties in the state. If we look at Mahnomen, Becker, Clearwater, these guys are struggling. People are relying more on themselves to try to solve problems. You see dockets more crowded with unrepresented parties, which makes life more difficult for people who are represented on the other side. The expectations here in terms of how much you can charge people for your services are different, I think. There’s much more low bono, if you will—we’ve been doing that for years. 

So your hourly rates are always at issue, the amount you charge for flat-rate stuff is always a consideration. There are people making $30,000-$40,000 a year, so they’re not looking to spend 10 grand on a legal problem if they can avoid it. That’s tempered by the fact that there are people who do well and need help out here, but I think small law firms are particularly taxed by that in the sense that our income is not [steady]—I don’t have an 80-lawyer firm with a bunch of good corporate clients who are going to generate repeated billings for associates. 

In this area opioids and meth are a big-time deal. Does that affect families? Tremendously. You see it all the time; you see domestics affected by that. Alcohol remains a huge factor, too. Don’t discount that. But [drugs] are as big a problem here as anywhere. Treatment facilities, diversion programs and the like, are potentially less plentiful here. Hubbard County is trying to get a drug court going. 

If you look at meth, the drug itself is insidious in its addictive power. It’s not something where you say, well, I’ll dry out and then I’ll be good to go. And with the opioids, the level of access to these drugs is unbelievable—you walk into a house in rural Minnesota and go to the medicine cabinet and you can find anything from Ambien to—name a narcotic. Fentanyl. It’s all around us. We never really thought much about that until it happened to us. 

There’s probably more criminal law involvement with family courts. If Daddy is drunk or using meth and that’s impacting the family and I’ve got to get out, get a divorce, there’s probably going to be a criminal law reaction there as well as family law procedural stuff. I’m surprised at how often grandma and grandpa are the solution for raising children in these situations where both mom and dad are messed up with drugs, or one of them is messed up and the single parent says I’m working and I can barely support myself and I need help. And we’ve got kids with a drunken parent or drug-addicted parent who is not trusted.

You see HROs, OFPs, restraining orders in just regular divorces. You see parenting plans that are affected by the fact Daddy was arrested and now we have a no-contact order. We have DANCOs, we have violations of DANCOs; how do we handle those? Do they still see the kids? How do we transfer people? All those things have an impact. We didn’t deal with all that 30 years ago. Whether we should have been doing that back then is a really good question.


0919-Robert-WoodkeRobert A. Woodke

Brouse, Woodke & Hildebrandt, PLLP, Bemidji

I’ve represented clients who had work in Bemidji from as far away as California and New Jersey, and a lot of people from Iowa and Illinois and places like that. People from all over the state of Minnesota. So my practice is not just people who live and work in Bemidji. But I’ve seen a lot of change here. There seems to be a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. There’s a lot of need for legal services. I’ve had people say, well, we have legal service panels and firms and they take care of that. 

Yeah, they do up to a point, but those folks have limited funding sources and they do what they can, but they can’t do everything. When we went away from court-appointed defense lawyers—where the court would call up and say, we’re assigning you to defend so-and-so, and you really didn’t have a choice; you were on the hook—and pretty much everybody did that, those cases were not at your normal hourly rate. They were at a rate set by the court, usually enough to cover the overhead with a very small profit margin. 

There was kind of an industry-wide commitment to pro bono, and today I see not as much pro bono being done as there used to be by most law firms. Now that’s not an indictment of firms that have given it up, but I’m saying there’s been a change in that philosophy. And part of that is the economic pressure on lawyers. For example, it used to be that virtually all titles were covered by a lawyer’s title opinion. There was no title insurance industry to speak of in Bemidji when I started practicing. Now we still do title opinions when we’re asked, but I doubt that we get a dozen of them in a year’s time. I knew lawyers who used to do eight or 10 title opinions a week.

Next: Part 3: Changing Technology