How To Become A Small Town Lawyer

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I met with a lawyer a couple of weeks ago in a small town about two hours outside of the Twin Cities. Our conversation turned to operating a law firm in a small town and the lawyer told me two things I probably knew but did not really appreciate. One was a complaint about how difficult it is to attract new lawyers to join law firms in rural areas. The other was the lawyer’s prediction that in the next ten years, half the lawyers in her quarter of the state were going to retire from the practice of law.

That prediction probably is not unique to Minnesota. New lawyers unable to find a job in a major American city may want to broaden their job searches beyond their local beltways.

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. 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.

Not sure what area of practice is best for you? In small towns, many lawyers are generalists. They take a variety of cases and get experience in multiple areas. Eager to get inside a courtroom? You may get more opportunities in a small town than you would as an associate in the big city.

The economics can work as well. The cost of housing may be less than half of what you would find in a major city. Your mortgage could be so small that even with your law school debt you would have less overall debt than you would have living in the city.

I know, you could never give up the city. You would miss the theater, even though you only go once or twice a year. Where would you shop? (Although you do most of your shopping online nowadays.) A small town only has one movie theater! (Of course, you stream most of the movies you see through Netflix.) These fears of cultural isolation may be just that — fears. The lawyer I met with told me that she and her colleagues are simply more intentional about going to the city for entertainment and probably do so more than city-folk. Many people in the city think nothing of traveling three hours each way in the summer to go up to the family cabin; rural residents just do a “reverse commute” to attend sporting events, concerts, and other big city attractions. I have a client who lives 2½ hours from Minneapolis and has seasons tickets to the Minnesota Twins.

Granted, there are some impediments. If you are single, it may be harder to find a mate in a smaller community. Even if you are married, your spouse may not be able to find suitable work in the same area.  But rural lawyers love to tell you how nice it is to raise children in a small town, where they can ride their bikes to every friend’s house and you know the parents of all of their playmates.

Quite frankly, rural lawyers probably do not want you to just show up for two or three years and then pack your bags and go back to the city. But there is always the possibility that once you get out to the country, you might like it and stay. There is risk in any venture, whether it is joining a big firm or starting your own practice. 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.

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Two states opt for sane lawyer advertising rules

yellow-pagesWithin recent days two states – Maine and Alabama– have turned back restrictive lawyer advertising proposals (first heard from the ABA’s Will Hornsby, who is now on twitter). Let’s hope it’s part of a trend.

Maine became another of the vast majority of states to adopt rules (effective Aug. 1, 2009) consistent with the ABA’s revised Model Rules of Professional Conduct. In the advertising arena, however, Maine departed from the ABA Model in two important respects. When it comes to soliciting business from prospective clients, ABA Model Rule 7.3 broadly prohibits live contact with anyone who is not a lawyer or does not already have a family, personal, or business relationship with the lawyer. This is the anti-ambulance chasing rule.  Unfortunately, it applies not just to accident victims and patients in hospital beds, but to all prospective clients, including CEOs, corporate directors, people needing estate planning, etc.

But Maine’s new version of Rule 7.3 narrowly tailors the restriction only to where it’s needed: for “non-commercial clients” where the solicitation by the lawyer “involves or has substantial potential of harassing conduct, coercion, duress, compulsion, intimidation or unwarranted promises of benefits.”  Then it goes on to state that the test for determining whether a solicitation is improper is multi-factored, requiring an analysis of the sophistication of the client regarding legal matters, the physical and emotional state of the prospective client, and the circumstances surrounding the solicitation. Now there’s a rule that should be a model for other states!

Regarding written solicitations of new clients, the ABA and many states require that the words “Advertising Material” appear on  the outside of the envelope, putting the solicitation letter on the fast track to the prospective client’s trash can. Not Maine. As noted in a comment to Maine’s new rule, concerns over client harassment, overreaching, and deception are adequately addressed by its other advertising rules, so there’s no need for a warning about the contents of the envelope. It’s almost like Maine wants its lawyers to be able to get new clients.

Maine also retained the unique “Aspirational Goals for Lawyer Advertising” that it adopted in 2005. Essentially, Maine has taken many of the black-letter restrictions from other states on crass slogans, wild dramatizations, the use of professional actors, etc., and asks Maine’s lawyers to stay away from unseemly advertising that might bring down the reputation of the entire profession.  One would assume that if the aspirational standard was not working, the Maine Supreme Court would have taken this opportunity to impose greater restrictions.

In Alabama, the Montgomery Advertiser reported  that the Alabama Supreme Court had rejected a petition by the Board of Bar Commissioners to ban “paid actors, jingles and wreck videos” from lawyer advertising to raise ads up out of the muck. Apparently, the Court gave no explanation for its decision but some may speculate about the lucrative residuals that may come from writing catchy jingles for law firm commercials.

These developments come close on the heels of the NJ Supreme Court’s decision last June  to allow NJ attorneys to refer to themselves as having been blessed with the label “SuperLawyer” (as long as they have been so anointed). Restrictive advertising rules for NY are under review by the 2nd Circuit, and a plan to implement a program for pre-publishing approval of lawyer ads in Louisiana is still winding its way through Federal court (as tweeted by La. ethics attorney Beth Alston).

If this keeps up, we may eventually see sane lawyer advertising rules prevail across the country.

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