Go Rural, Young Lawyer!

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 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.

RelatedNew Graduate taking over an existing [rural] law firm

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.

This was originally published on September 7, 2010, but it seems equally relevant in 2014.

Featured image: “Main Street and Old Common Road sign in autumn” from Shutterstock.

Ninety-Five

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These remarks by Eric Cooperstein were first given at the Hennepin County Bar Association‘s annual meeting in May, then printed in the July 2013 issue of The Hennepin Lawyer, member publication of the HCBA. I am re-publishing them here because we have talked about the problems with bar associations, wondered whether they are still useful, suggested ways for them to stay relevant, and more. This is one bar association president’s answer. — Ed.

When I meet lawyers and explain that my entire law practice is devoted to representing attorneys in ethics matters, I typically get one of two responses. Either they say “There must be a lot of unethical lawyers out there who need help,” or they say “I hope I never need to hire you.” I’m always a little taken aback. When people meet ophthalmologists, I doubt they say “I hope I never have glaucoma!”

Behind these comments there lies a hope that lawyers who have ethics issues are very different from the rest of us. In a very small percentage of cases—intentional thefts, felony convictions—that may be true. Those cases account for maybe one-tenth of one percent of all lawyers who are disciplined and often they are unrepresented in the discipline process.

For the most part, my clients are people very much like you. You might be surprised to hear that you have a lot in common with my clients. They are:

  • good lawyers;
  • often but not always solo and small firm lawyers;
  • they care deeply about their clients;
  • they are proud of the good work they do for clients;
  • they are typically in mid-career;
  • they tend to have busy practices; and
  • they have made some type of mistake.

One common mistake is accepting the representation of a client that the lawyer knew in her gut she should not have taken. Some mistakes are merely overlooking communications with the client or procrastinating on a file. Some mistakes are more significant than that: mistakes of judgment, mistakes of “perceived expediency.” A false statement, such as a lie to a client about whether the lawyer has worked on a matter. Good lawyers, like yourselves, are tortured by these kinds of mistakes.

I notice other patterns in the lawyers I represent. One that has been particularly striking to me is that oftentimes lawyers are isolated. This is a problem not just for solo lawyers, but also for lawyers who run small firms, and lawyers in larger firms. No matter what the practice setting, lawyers who are facing an ethics violation sometimes seem to have few other lawyers they can confide in. I have seen a similar pattern in lawyers who are marginalized within law firms for other reasons. It’s that sense of waking up one morning and not being quite sure who your friends are.

It seems also that the more serious the misconduct, the more isolated the lawyer is. In serious cases, there is an opportunity to offer character evidence to try to mitigate the disciplinary sanction. A recurring pattern is that my clients have difficulty identifying another lawyer in whom they have confided, who understands the respondent lawyer’s background and challenges, and can talk about the person behind the mistake.

On the other hand, I have also seen the power of true friendship. Lawyers who stand by their colleagues in spite of their mistakes. Those are the lawyers who are best able to get back up on their feet after they’ve taken a fall.

The practice of law is challenging, much more so than the public has any appreciation for. The deadlines, the trust clients place in us, the responsibility, the judgment calls, the multiple sets of rules, the pressure to generate business and collect fees—few other professions face such demands. Nobody understands a lawyer’s problems like another lawyer.

Despite how much we need each other, we have difficulty connecting. Increasingly, we spend our time in front of computer screens. Business development pushes us to spend our marketing time and dollars learning rain dances. And we love our “privacy.” Privacy, of course, was once described by Justice Brandeis as the “right to be let alone.”1 In practice it has become the right to seclusion.

At one time, most lawyers practiced in small towns. Lawyers knew each other, they knew each others’ families, and they had cases with the same lawyers time after time. There was little room for sharp practice. As decades passed we moved to big cities and become used to a certain anonymity. It is easy to be nasty to opposing counsel when you figure that the chances of seeing her on another case are slim.

After hearing this, it should not come as a shock to any of you that I have become a bar association evangelist. A bar association, particularly a geographically-based bar association, has a critical role to play in connecting lawyers and fostering a healthy profession. But we need to make some adjustments to the way in which we view our bar association.

For many years now, one of the primary rationales for belonging to a bar association is for “networking.” There is nothing wrong with networking; we all need to eat and a network of referral sources is the way one builds a strong law practice. In fact, I would argue that lawyers whose practices are referral-based are likely to be healthier lawyers than lawyers whose business generation is driven by advertising—or worse—paying for lead generation.

But networking, as a paradigm or a rationale for belonging to an organization, has a somewhat Machiavellian spin to it. When a lawyer networks, the event—the coffee, the lunch, or the committee meeting—is in some sense only a means to an end. And the end is rather self-focused. What will this contact do for me? A network is a web that we use to snare future clients. If lawyers can build a better web without a bar association, they’re gone.

Networking will always play a role in the life of a bar association but the networking paradigm is failing us as an association. Because not all lawyers generate business through referrals from other lawyers, they think their time is better spent building client-snaring webs through other organizations. And with respect purely to generating business, they are probably correct.

The paradigm I prefer is community. When one is participating in and trying to build a community, the means and the end are the same. The means may be similar to networking—particularly good networking, which focuses on meaningful connections rather than handing out business cards—but the focus in a community is on building the relationship for the sake of the relationship. I’m not having lunch with you because the marketing guru at my firm told me I had to have lunch with X number of people per month; I’m having lunch with you because I want to be a part of a larger community. When we build relationships we are giving as well as receiving.

In my church we have a metaphor for the community. We say the community is like an ocean that embraces people and buoys them up when they need it. Most of the time we are part of the ocean. Our role most of the time is to help others. When we face difficulties, we turn to the ocean to support us.

When lawyers are beaten down by the difficulties of practicing law, when they are feeling isolated, they don’t need a network, they need an ocean. Lawyers who are in trouble because they made a mistake need an ocean, not a network. Young lawyers without jobs, hanging out shingles, struggling to figure out how to practice law, don’t so much need a network as they need an ocean.

I realize that some of this is semantics. Good networking and community building may look very similar. Going to lunch or coffee with someone you’re genuinely interested in getting to know serves both ends. But I want to challenge the way you think of the bar association.

A networker looks at an event like a section meeting or the Judges Social or this annual meeting and says “Who will I see at this event? Will it help me generate business in the long run?” When you see yourself as part of a community, you might instead say to yourself “Who might be at this event who needs to see me? Who might need my friendship, my advice, or my mentoring? Who might be suffering? Who might be helped by reconnecting with me?”

Now, I don’t expect you to save a life every time you go to the Bar Benefit or attend a CLE. But I believe that this bar association will thrive if we can recapture a sense of community we had back in the day, when the bar was smaller and 100 lawyers would show up every Tuesday for lunch at the bar association office, just to get together. That sense of community is important if we are ever going to put to rest the perennial hand-wringing over the lack of professionalism and collegiality amongst lawyers.

Our bar has grown since the days of the weekly lunch and our demographics have changed. We can no longer just let people know lunch is available and expect a crowd of lawyers to show up every week. But we will be working this year on providing more ways for lawyers to connect with each other through the bar association in ways that resonate with them.

Other bar associations have experienced tremendous success with affinity groups that are not limited to providing CLEs about the latest changes to the title standards or the Rules of Civil Procedure. Books clubs, running clubs, lawyers who brew their own beer—we are going to try to find ways to foster connections amongst lawyers through the interests they already have. Some of these new groups will launch as early as this fall; see the announcement in this issue (on page 35) and in the weekly e-newsletter.

I am just the 95th in a long line of lawyers who cared enough about our colleagues and the profession to want to become the chief evangelist of the bar association. Whether the HCBA prospers depends not on some clever program I come up with that will cement my place in bar association history, marvelous though that might be, but on whether you will join me in thinking of our association as a community that exists primarily because of how much we value the community itself. I am looking forward to connecting and working with you in the coming year. Thank you.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/evaekeblad/632538407/)


  1. Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 478 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting). 

Planning For What You Did Last Summer

Beachball1 Planning For What You Did Last SummerAt some point in our educational careers, we have all returned to school in September and been directed to write an essay titled “What I Did Last Summer.� And we have all had the same first thought: Nothing. I did nothing all summer.

If you are a first or second-year law student, you cannot afford to return to school in September without a long list of the things you did this summer to better position yourself to ultimately get a job in this tough economy. Even when times were good, 1Ls could not typically expect to find paid legal work over the summer; now many 2Ls are caught in the same position. But that doesn’t mean you should spend the summer sleeping in, taking Facebook surveys, and watching Hulu.

Get thee to a law office

One way or another, you are going to want to spend some time in law office. If you cannot get paid work in an office, then volunteering is your best bet. Most nonprofits, like the Legal Aid Society, cannot handle an unlimited number of volunteers but you would be surprised how few people try to volunteer outside of a paid internship (unpaid internships at for-profit law offices may be more trouble than they are worth). To make yourself useful to the nonprofit, you will need to commit to a certain number of hours per week, perhaps 20, and agree to show up on regular days and times. Don’t be surprised if you are not busy the first week you are there; it typically takes attorneys a few days to figure out what tasks can be delegated to the volunteers.

Because law students also need to make money in the summer, try to find paid work during nights and weekends. If you find yourself whining about having to work two jobs in the summer, go hang out with some unemployed 3Ls who are studying for the bar exam.

Join the bar association and a legal listserv

Many bar associations steeply discount their rates for students. Summer is a good time to join the bar, become familiar with its services, and perhaps participate in some bar activities. Sections and committees may meet less frequently in the summer but they may also have summer sports and networking events through which you can meet attorneys and learn more about the practice. Summer is also a good time to join a listserv and learn about the types of questions lawyers ask each other without becoming too distracted from your coursework.

Focus

There are few lawyers who operate general practices any more – specialization has been the trend for many years. One edge students have now that they did not have five or ten years ago is that there are blogs in every practice area, easily accessible, announcing and analyzing the latest decisions and trends in that area. Find and follow the legal blogs in the areas of practice that interest you and start yourself down the road to specialization. At the very least, you may discover that the practice area you were so hot about before law school is less interesting to you that watching paint dry.

Skip summer school

Many prospectively unemployed students decide to take a course or two in the summer, figuring they can lighten their load during the regular school year. Feh. Law school is an intense, competitive place, often divorced from the real world. Students need a break. Plus, taking summer school is, well, boring. Does nothing for your resume. I vote for working two jobs over summer school.

Read

Forget the trashy novels. In addition to blawgs and listservs, there are two types of books you should read over the summer. First, you may not have a legal job, but you can read about the law: famous cases, supreme court biographies, Louis Nizer (who?), etc. If you are going to practice law for the next 30 or 40 years, you might as well learn something about its history or famous litigators.

Second, read good novels or nonfiction, anything that is either well-written or opens you up to new ideas and experiences. Why? Because hopefully sometime soon you are going to have an interview for a legal job you really want. A good book will provide an interesting topic for conversation and could save you from the dreaded “Tell me about yourself� interview question. If nothing else, at least you will be able to say what you did last summer.

lawyeristlab banner Planning For What You Did Last Summer

Planning For What You Did Last Summer is a post from the law firm marketing blog, Lawyerist.com

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