The area where I practice, rural Nevada, is one of the most remote in the country. Lovelock (95 miles east of Reno), the town where I live, has just one stoplight. It is 60 miles from the nearest Walmart. Several of the towns I practice in are along U.S. Highway 50, self-proclaimed as “the loneliest road in America,” where communities are spaced 60 to 100 miles apart.
Twelve of the 17 county seats in Nevada can be classified as rural. Each of these rural seats houses a district court with a “law and motion” calendar one to four days a month and a justice court that meets usually at least once a week. The smallest county seat, Goldfield, has fewer than 300 full-time residents. The “largest” rural communities are Ely and Yerington with a few thousand residents each.
In several of these county seats, including Goldfield, Hawthorne, Eureka, and Tonopah, there are no private practice attorneys at all. In Lovelock, Battle Mountain, Yerington, Ely, and Pioche, there are only one or two private practice attorneys/firms. Several dozen rural Nevada towns with populations of a few hundred to several thousand have no lawyers at all. Those folks sometimes must drive more than 100 miles to meet with an attorney.
Do not make the mistake of confusing a lack of people with a lack of work. In fact, the variety of work available makes rural practice very rewarding, if you are willing to train yourself on a new area of law every now and then.
Besides personal injury, family law, and criminal defense—my daily bread and butter—I have had clients ask me about or have worked on everything from “black lung” cases to mining law, to water law, to landlord-tenant, to estates, to immigration, to disability rights, to educational/student law, to bankruptcy, to tribal law, and all things in between.
Like many spaces in rural America, agriculture, mining, and military employers are the primary sources of revenue here. Since the crash of 2008, rural Nevada has been, for the most part, very lucky. Home prices did drop in some areas, but in others they didn’t. Employment levels did drop, but in some areas there are booming mining industries. Overall, the economy did not lose nearly as much as the urban counties of Nevada, which leads the nation in unemployment and foreclosures.
Several mining communities in rural Nevada don’t have enough motel rooms, let alone houses, to hold the number of miners and contractors necessary to work and explore. Just as expected, because life happens to everyone, these miners and contractors get divorced, get hurt, or are accused of crimes.
Even tiny Goldfield provides a niche of work. The county, Esmeralda, which is the size of Connecticut but is home to fewer than 700 residents, has a couple hundred miles of state and federal highways that provide an above-average number of drug arrests, DUI cases, and fatal car accidents. Most of the folks accused of these highway-related crimes in Esmeralda County have never heard of the place until they are in the county jail. It is the same for many of the other 11 rural counties.
Given the robust economic activity in some rural areas, there simply are not enough lawyers there.
Nonetheless, no matter how good the economy remains in rural America, the major challenges for a lawyer remain: clients’ ability to pay, the travel that must be done to get enough work, and keeping up with the variety of law that clients expect you to know. Indeed, the biggest challenge lawyers in rural areas face is competently handling the wide variety of issues encountered.
Of course, knowledge about most legal subjects can be found on the web. Even the smallest communities have high-speed or satellite Internet service. But getting the legal knowledge, as we all know, is only a first step.
Rural practice is also about learning the local rules—the particular ways a judge or jury feels about certain issues, which can be influenced by the ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds of the communities and their people. Several areas in Nevada are much more libertarian in their views on issues such as drugs than you might think. The racial diversity and harmony in rural Nevada communities would surprise many. The advantages in having all the above information should be obvious.
Once you obtain that knowledge—and you can only do so by spending time and getting to know the communities—you can get down to other challenges rural lawyers face.
Perhaps the most important of these challenges is the space between towns and courthouses. In order to make money in less populated areas, you have to be willing to travel. Period. At times, I have had cases pending in all 17 Nevada counties. No matter how small technology makes the world, you still have to be willing to go a courthouse several hours away for court appearances. Yes, I have driven three hours each way for a ten-minute court appearance. Who hasn’t? Doing it more than once a week may make you into a rural lawyer.
True, testimony now can be taken over videoconference, attorneys now can make appearances by telephone, and clients now can appear for cases and depositions by electronic means. While the convenience of these rules and technologies cannot be understated (they do make things easier), it can be overstated. At the end of the day, you will likely have to travel to a rural courthouse to get most cases finished. More importantly, there is no substitute for a personal appearance. In these rural communities your clients expect you to be standing beside them in court, even if a telephonic appearance would be allowed.
Needless to say, this personal touch is also indispensable for finding new clients. As you would expect from small towns, word-of-mouth advertising is far more effective and cost effective than anything that can be bought. Many lawyers in the rural areas don’t advertise at all. And there are still some holdouts on the Internet and web presence in general. It may seem odd to say that the Internet isn’t fully being utilized by rural lawyers in 2013, but it is the truth. The marketplace is slowly causing that to change, however; even in a town of several thousand, people move in and out every day, and the newcomers turn to the web in a very high percentage.
There is one other detail about rural communities that always fascinates me: No matter how far apart the towns, no matter the differences in the type of community (mining or agricultural, for example), I never cease to be amazed by how many people in rural areas are related to other people in rural areas hundreds of miles away. This is important not only because of its effect on word-of-mouth reputation building (or tearing down, as the case may be), it is important because of conflicts. I have been shocked to find out that an opposing party in a case 300 miles away is the daughter of someone in Lovelock. (That explained the dirty looks at the post office. . . .)
Moreover, because most people in these small, rural towns know most of the other people living there, your clients always assume that because you know them, you know their entire family. Their kids from a prior marriage. Their former in-laws. It is always important to ask very detailed questions, and I don’t mean just the legal conflict questions, but just questions to find out who is related to whom and where. This advice is particularly important for urban lawyers who find themselves taking cases in rural towns—and in the new economy this happens more frequently than you might expect. Many times these lawyers are unaware of the pointers given above, and they end up costing themselves and their clients more grief than necessary.
Another aspect of the changing marketplace that I would like to touch on is that the law has become more specialized. Nothing earth shattering there. But this increased specialization has had an impact on rural folks in Nevada and probably many other states. A primary example is in bankruptcy law. Like other rural Nevada lawyers, I used to handle bankruptcies regularly. The reforms a few years back and the advent of electronic filing drove most, if not all, of the rural practitioners in Nevada out of the bankruptcy business. These new rules made doing bankruptcy a few times a year impracticable and unprofitable.
This situation doesn’t benefit people from rural areas who need bankruptcies. Other areas of the law also appear to have become very specialized, with practitioners only in urban areas; workers’ compensation comes readily to mind in this regard. Any loss of the ability to provide a legal service is not likely to be replaced in a rural area and only forces people to go, sometimes, hundreds of miles further to obtain representation.
Finally, I would be remiss to leave out the changing marketplace with regard to pro bono and legal aid services. Many lawyers do their share—and more than their share—in this regard, but pro bono and legal aid services do not have offices in many areas and are difficult to get to for many rural Americans, even with all the Internet advances and the world getting smaller through technology. Just as the number of rural lawyers in limited, so is their time and ability to donate services to folks who legitimately cannot afford them. This topic easily could fill an entire article, but suffice it to say here, a concerted effort needs to occur to provide the necessary advice and counsel to those rural residents who are in need. If rural folks are underserved, poor rural folks are even more underserved. We all have an obligation to improve this situation as much as time and energy allow.