Not Enough Work (and 7 other myths about rural law practice)

By Bruce Cameron

0919-Hill-CIty “It’s a misconception that [small-town lawyers] can’t handle substantial, complex matters. After making partner [in Atlanta], I decided to leave the big city, and I’m as good a lawyer now as I would be had
 I remained."

 – Mark Cobb (class of 1991)

Perhaps the biggest myth about small towns is that they aren’t places of refinement and culture. In fact, often the opposite is true, because the arts, music, theater, and dance have not forsaken small towns, and often folks in small towns have been culturally exposed overseas as part of their military service or their education. And while small town business people may not be Wall Street dealmakers, the average farmer runs a $1 million-plus enterprise. What follows are a few more common misconceptions about the rural bar that should be put to rest.

Myth #1: There is not enough work out there. While it may not be raining soup, there is plenty of work for rural/small town lawyers. One little-known fact about rural practice is that the need for legal services remains high over time, as the supply of lawyers is diminishing faster than the rural population generally. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that to succeed a rural lawyer must first earn the trust and confidence of the community. Don’t expect your reputation to precede you; most small towns are not going to be all that impressed by past triumphs, law school accolades, or a degree from a Tier 1 school. In fact, too much self-promotion will cause small town folks to avoid you. (“Putting on airs” breeds skepticism; small towns figure no one is that good.) In a small community, you have to be seen as accessible and competent, and you have to be a person first and a lawyer second. If you can achieve that balance, the work will come.

Myth #2: I can’t afford to work at a lower rate. There’s no doubt that rural lawyers have lower rates then their urban counterparts. But before dismissing a rural practice out of hand, either because it doesn’t generate a big city salary or because you carry a heavy law school debt load, remember that small towns lack the big city cost of living. For example, in the late 2000s the average lawyer in California was earning approximately $88,000/year, while the average lawyer in Montana earned around $48,000 (based on 2007 U.S. Census data). Yet if you adjusted for cost of living, that $48,000 had the same purchasing power in Montana as $101,000 in California! You should not dismiss the idea of a rural practice because your gross salary would be less than in a big city. Do the math, and you may find that you’ll have greater earning power in a small town.

Myth #3: I’d feel isolated. Well, yes, if you are a solo practitioner in a small town, you are going to be alone—just you, perhaps your staff, and whoever happens to drop by. But thanks to Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, legal listservs, and the entire social networking revolution, the small-town practitioner is no longer isolated from the rest of the legal community. Then again, the rural lawyer has never really ever practiced in isolation. Rural lawyers have always built loose webs of social, civic, and legal networks, because the one constant truth is that small towns tend to hire “their own” before they hire outsiders, and there are really only two ways to become one of their own: (a) arrange matters so that your family has lived in the town for at least three generations, or (b) be a “joiner.” Small towns appreciate those who volunteer.

Myth #4: I’d miss out on challenging legal work. Yes, the rural lawyer does miss out on things like M&A, intellectual property, securitization, and international corporate tax law. But if we are honest about it, the average metropolitan lawyer misses out on those things, too. Perhaps the key word here is “challenge.” You’ll find the average rural lawyer doing those small, messy—but challenging—legal things that matter to people. Things like family law, estate planning, civil and criminal defense, mechanics liens and construction matters, personal injury, bankruptcies, small business transactions, real estate, debt collection, agriculture law, and municipal law. And the average rural lawyer practices within a legal community that emphasizes and fosters collegiality and respect rather than one that seems to reward incivility and competition. 

Myth #5: I wouldn’t be exposed to a variety of practice areas. If you mean that you won’t be exposed to a fixed rotation through the various departments of a major law firm, you are absolutely right. Rural lawyers have to be a bit more flexible—able to write a will, open a probate, handle a residential real estate closing, serve a summons and complaint in a divorce action, and defend a DUI case. And that’s just what’s on the agenda for Monday.

Myth #6: I’d miss out on the BigLaw experience. There is no denying that a rural practice, even one in a small firm, is not going to offer the same slow, steady climb toward success that a big metropolitan firm offers. Since the rural lawyer has to be ready for direct client interaction and courtroom appearances from day one, rural practice is more like jumping directly into the deep end of the pool. Look, rural practice is not for everyone; nor is a career in BigLaw. You have to listen to your muse. If your dream is to build a practice in international mergers and acquisitions, and you require the diversity and density of metropolitan life, then you’ll never be happy in Small Town, USA.

Myth #7: Rural lawyers aren’t as good or as sophisticated as big city lawyers. Don’t underestimate the small-town lawyer. The lawyer opening his or her storefront office on Monday morning is just as likely to be a Harvard Law grad (Order of the Coif, magna cum laude) as a graduate of a Tier 4 law school. Small towns are not big on credentials; they value competence over accolades. And the rural lawyer soon learns that advertising one’s professional expertise and legal acumen is an exercise in futility, because no one cares. So under that meek, mild-mannered disguise, a rural lawyer may be a top-notch litigator, an expert in estate planning, or a real estate wizard. Rural lawyers are not practicing out in the sticks because they aren’t talented; they practice there because they choose to.

Myth #8: Rural law is all backroom deals between the good old boys. Hate to bust this myth, but the notion that rural law is what’s cooked up between an aging, semi-senile judge and a couple of conniving, good old country lawyers is Hollywood, not reality. The reality is that the rural bar—from the knowledgeable and keenly acute jurists to the talented lawyers—is sophisticated, technologically savvy… and welcoming. Rural courts may have their local customs (like preferring blue ink for signatures, or requiring three-inch top margins on any order that might be recorded in a land abstract, or holding foreclosure sales on the courthouse steps), but these are idiosyncrasies that can be easily mastered by asking the court clerk. 

BRUCE CAMERON operates Cameron Law PLLC and practices estate planning, collaborative family law, and mediation. He blogs at RuralLawyer.com and LittleLawOfficeOnThePrairie.com.