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October 06, 2014 Asked and Answered

Do you have what it takes to be a rural lawyer? (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Many young law grads are being urged to move out of large cities and into rural areas, where there aren’t as many attorneys competing for work. As we reported in the ABA Journal’s October cover story, there are many small communities in rural America that are woefully underserved, and access to justice is a real problem. It would seem a prime idea to hang your shingle in one of these small towns.

But what does it take to run a successful legal practice in a rural area? Asked and Answered moderator Stephanie Francis Ward speaks with Lorelei Laird, the reporter who wrote our cover story, and Bruce Cameron, who runs a solo practice in rural Minnesota.

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Ward: Tired of the city living? Maybe the life of a country lawyer is for you—or maybe it isn’t.

I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and joining me today on Asked and Answered is Bruce Cameron, a Minnesota lawyer who writes a popular blog about rural law practices.

Also joining us is Lorelei Laird, an ABA Journal reporter who wrote this month’s cover story about what it’s like to practice law in small towns and rural areas.

What is the need for lawyers in rural areas, Lorelei? Would you say, based on what you discovered in your reporting, is that a growing need right now?

Lorelei Laird: Yes, I’d say so. It was hard to track down statistics on this, because nobody keeps good track of it. But anecdotally I can tell you that people say, in all of the states that I looked into it, young lawyers are not moving to rural areas.

They have a lot of debt; they don’t want to go someplace where the money is maybe not as good as it is in cities. And they’re young, they want to go out and meet people. And if they’re married, their spouses generally want a job, and that’s easier to find when you’re in a city.

So, as a result there are a lot of older lawyers who are getting toward retirement age and they just can’t find anybody to take over their practices.

And this causes problems for people who live in those areas, because they still have legal needs; they still have to write wills, and get divorced, and all those other things. And they have to drive two or three hours to a city to do it now, which is expensive and not necessarily a good solution.

Stephanie Ward: OK, and Bruce can you give us a sense of what kind of income can a lawyer earn if he or she moves to a rural area?

Bruce Cameron: I think that depends. I think you can make a good living, you can provide for your family, you can put stuff away for retirement, you can pay your bills. But I think the trick is learning how to balance the need to develop a business, and the need to have an income, to make money.

If you spend too much time focusing on making money at the expense of developing your practice or developing new clients, you go through boom-and-bust cycles and that affects your overall income.

But then again, if you spend all your time and all your money advertising and networking, you’re burning through your capital before you get that income in the door.

Stephanie Ward: All right, so there’s more clients maybe who need lawyers in rural areas, but it’s a smaller pool. But at the same time, for the most part housing cost is a lot cheaper usually in rural areas. So would you say it all kind of works out? You may not be able to charge someone, say, $300 an hour, but you also don’t have to pay $5,000 a month in rent, perhaps.

Bruce Cameron: I think you’re right, I think it does all balance out. Cost of living is less, and frankly it’s far easier to keep chickens in your backyard if you’re out in the country than if you’re in a city. Though I think some of the expenses shift. You may have higher housing costs in a city, but you’re going to have higher transportation costs out in a rural area. You’re going to be driving everywhere, so you need to expect gasoline to be a large factor in a budget.

Stephanie Ward: OK, can you tell us a bit, how is client development different? I think, just to go back to what you just said about “if you spend too much time working you’re going to have boom and bust times, you’ve got to do the networking as well”–how is client development different in rural areas than more urban places?

Bruce Cameron: I think it’s much more about making personal connections and being involved in a community, than it is strictly advertising or Web presence or your participation on social media. And the other thing, it’s 100 percent about your reputation. I mean, you’re in a small community and everybody is going to know you, or come to hear about you.

And so if you’re not building positive word-of-mouth, if you’re not building that, you know, community involvement, you’re just not going to really develop much clientele. That’s how things work a little bit differently. In a larger city, if you mess something up, you know there’s another client coming down the pike. But in a small town, everybody’s going to hear about your mistakes.

Stephanie Ward: Lorelei, what was your sense in reporting this about how client development was different for folks who moved out to a rural area?

Lorelei Laird: Well, I think that because it’s a smaller community, folks told me that everybody really knows everybody. And one of the young people I talked to, Cody Cooper, said as soon as he got there, people already knew who he was, because it wasn’t a very big community. This was in Wishek, North Dakota, which is how the article starts out. Before he was even fully settled, everybody knew who he was; they knew his wife was; they knew what they were doing there. And I think -

Stephanie Ward: How did he feel about that? Did he like it, or was it like, “Oh this is weird.”

Lorelei Laird: Well, I think he expected it. But yeah, it sounded to me like he was getting to like it. And you know, because he had to wait for bar admission in North Dakota, he was sort of taking advantage of the time by doing a lot of client development, doing a lot of social things, in order to make sure that everybody liked him and he had a good reputation.

Stephanie Ward: And did you get the sense that it was easy for the couple to make friends, and have a rewarding social life in the town where they moved to?

Lorelei Laird: You know, I didn’t ask about that. I do think that with a limited pool of people your age, you might have to expand a little farther out in terms of socializing.

Stephanie Ward: OK. I was also curious, Bruce, do you think it’s a good idea to seriously think about buying a retiring lawyer’s practice when you move to a rural area? Or is that–is that worth the money, because there’s no guarantee? So the question is, should you buy a practice, or maybe is it better just to go out on your own and gather clients on your own?

Bruce Cameron: I’m going to give you the standard lawyer answer: It depends.

Stephanie Ward: [laughs] Of course.

Bruce Cameron: There are pros and cons to each. If you buy a practice the right way, you’re going to get a mentor, you’re going to get some name recognition, there might be a book of business there. And you’ll definitely have an entree into the community through the retiring lawyer.

On the downside if you–there’s always the possibility that you’re going to get stuck with a large overhead: office building, staff, leased equipment that you may or may not need, things like that. And no book of business, the practice may have been just a lot of one-off deals, and there’s no repeat business.

So you’ve got to weigh both those sides. Starting on your own means you get to design everything you want; you get to keep your overhead low; you get to have full control over everything. On the other hand, you’ve got to get out there and hustle for business, find mentors, and it’s going to be a lot of long, very long hours for very little return initially.

But I think, you know, if you’ve got access to the capital or you can swing the purchase correctly, buying a practice is a great idea. It gets you that leg up into the community, it gets you that introduction, and that’s huge.

Stephanie Ward: OK, great. We are going to take a quick break, and when we come back we’re going to talk about whether it’s important to be a generalist or a specialist in a rural law practice.

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Stephanie Ward: And we’re back. Bruce, do you think it’s important to be a generalist or a specialist if you’re going to open a practice in a small town?

Bruce Cameron: I think it’s going to depend a lot on the community where you’re practicing. If you’re the only lawyer in town, then you’re pretty much going to have to be something of a generalist or least have a very, very good referral list. But if there are other lawyers in town, you can probably get away with focusing on a few areas, things that are complementary to what the other attorneys in town are doing.

I do know of a few attorneys, rural attorneys who focus exclusively on a single practice area, but they’re very rare. And the things they have in common is they’re generally practicing in towns where there are other lawyers, other law firms. They’ve generally been practicing for some considerable amount of time, which means they’ve put a great deal of time into becoming the local go-to guy for this area. And they’re all in smaller firms, where other lawyers provide complementary services so that the firm itself is generalist but the lawyers are specialized.

But basically, if a lawyer is going to be a specialist in a single area, it means that they’ve spent their careers building a reputation as an expert. You know, that’s their career. And a lot of them right now are either considering or nearing retirement.

Stephanie Ward: Lorelei, in your experience reporting this, what’s your sense of some practice areas that tend to be the most underserved in rural areas?

Lorelei Laird: I am not sure what is underserved and—well OK, in North Dakota because they have an oil boom there, all the lawyers are working on, especially in the north, the north–I think western part of the state, I forget. But all the lawyers are working on oil rights, mineral rights, and there’s big money in that.

But as a result of that, the legal needs of ordinary folks–like criminal defense and divorce and so forth–are not getting taken care of. And so they have a lawyer for there but they have a slightly different kind.

Stephanie Ward: Right.

Lorelei Laird: In general, I imagine that your small-town lawyer probably handles a little bit of everything. That’s what Jake Fisher told me, he is one of the first South Dakota State Bar lawyers participating in the South Dakota State Bar’s program.

Stephanie Ward: OK. I’m also curious about how you’d manage conflicts. Lorelei, I believe you spoke with a couple who are doing this now, and they chose to have different practice focuses so they wouldn’t be conflicted out and could maybe refer business to each other. Is that correct?

Lorelei Laird: Yes I think so; I actually wonder if interesting ethical issues might not turn up, just because everybody is going to know everybody in that situation. But I expect if you couldn’t do something, if neither one of them could pick up something, that they might have to send it out to Bismarck, which is I think almost two hours away.

Stephanie Ward: And Bruce, do you think, is it a different way of looking and thinking about potential conflicts when you have a rural practice, just because the pool is so much smaller, both with lawyers and clients? Or is it really not that different than in a more urban area?

Bruce Cameron: I think–well, first off, the ethical rules really don’t change between rural and metropolitan attorneys. And so I–my cases, I think that a rural attorney is going to be a little bit more careful with doing their conflict checks. Again as part of, you know, your reputation. You’re gonna want to be the ethical guy, you want to be doing everything correctly. So if you have to bow out, you have to bow out.

In any case where I’ve had to have a conflict check, and it’s come up where I have to bow out, the parties understand. I mean it’s just a matter of explaining, “I can’t do this because it would be unethical, it’s not the right way to do it.”

The only thing I’ve—you know, occasionally there’ve been times where I’ve been in doubt, and it’s a call to the local PR board, and they’ll give me an opinion. And I think I’ve always taken the stance that it’s good to err on the side of caution.

Stephanie Ward: OK. Say if you’d moved to a small town that also happens to be the town of the state’s largest dairy producer. Bruce, in your experience, have you seen those big businesses in the state, are they willing to work with a lawyer who comes to town, or is it a little hard to get their business initially?

Bruce Cameron: Well, if you’re expecting to work for them Day One, no, you’re not going to get the work. But if you’ve got positive word-of-mouth, if you’ve got a solid reputation, maybe.

What you have to understand is, you know, say that large dairy producer–or practically any successful farmer in the area who’s doing a lot of business–they’re businessman. And they’re going to have–most likely they’re going to already have an attorney, or if not, they already have a list of numbers that they call when they need legal services.

And it’s not “we’re going to hire the local lawyer because he’s the local lawyer.” It’s “we’re going to hire the local lawyer because they do something better, they provide better value, they understand our situation better, they understand the community better, they are there to help this farmer make money, to reach their business goals.” If you can do that, then you’ve got a good shot at getting hired.

Stephanie Ward: When you do first go to the smaller town and you’re opening up your practice, are there some ways that you think are unique to a small town that you can kind of keep the business, your bread and butter developing that, you know, getting business? Are there some ways that are unique to a smaller town, when you first start going, that you can share with us? How do you keep your firm afloat for the first year?

Bruce Cameron: Boy, that’s a tough one. I think that’s going to be unique to every small town and every person. I started doing small matters. You know, a contract review here, a wind lease there, a couple of probates. But the first, probably the first month or so, it’s a matter of just getting out and meeting people, letting people know you’re there, finding out how they might want you to structure your law practice.

My original idea was I’d make house calls, exclusively house calls. And that didn’t work, because people want an office, they don’t want the lawyer driving up to their door and telling everybody their business; they want a brick-and-mortar place where they come in. But they opened up to the idea of house calls. Once I had established the brick and mortar part, making house calls was easy and everybody sort of likes that flexibility.

So you really have to listen to your town and make those connections. And then understand that the work is going to dribble in a little bit at a time until you’ve started making a lot of positive connections, a lot of word-of-mouth, built that reputation, and then it starts coming in a little more steadily.

Stephanie Ward: And do you have any advice—I think sometimes perhaps when you move to a new area you have to be really mindful of how you’re perceived.

For instance, I mean, say you move from St. Paul, and if you always said, “Well, in St. Paul, we always did it this way.” That probably doesn’t go over very well with the new people you meet, I would imagine. I mean, would you all agree?

Bruce Cameron: Definitely. You need to spend some time listening, and finding out how the small town you’re in works. Far better to listen than express opinions for a long time. But you have to remember, until you’ve had kids there and maybe have grandchildren there, you’re the new people in town. Granted, until the next new people show up, you know?

Stephanie Ward: And Lorelei, in your experience reporting this, is your take that most of the people who have done this, who you spoke with, are really happy with their decisions?

Lorelei Laird: Yeah I’d say so. The fellow I mentioned before in South Dakota, Jake Fisher, he sat down and he made a very, I think a very thorough review of the decision with his wife. And they had moved from Minneapolis-St. Paul, and one of the factors in the decision was “Yes, we’re going to make a little bit less money,” because his wife was going to go from full-time to part-time.

But they decided it was worth it, and when people talk about why it’s worth it they think about lifestyle a lot, you know. Being able to be in a small town with their kids, having access to farms, and I guess fresh air, to invoke a cliche.

Stephanie Ward: All right, well that’s everything I have today. Did anyone want to add anything else?

Lorelei Laird: I do, and it is this: When I spoke to a law-placement professional with one of the Kansas law schools, she made sure to point out that million-dollar deals happen in rural America all the time. You don’t have to be doing mergers and acquisitions in New York to do a million-dollar deal. In rural America, there is a lot of land, there are mineral rights, there are things that are worth a ton of money; a lot of farmers are millionaires on paper. So do not think all the action is in cities.

Stephanie Ward: All right. Well thank you all so much for your time, I really appreciate it.

Bruce Cameron: You’re quite welcome, thank you.

Lorelei Laird: Thank you.

Stephanie Ward: Thanks for joining us. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and please join us next time for the next episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

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[End of Transcript]

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Bruce Cameron is the founder and principal of Cameron Law PLLC in Rochester, Minnesota. He is the author of Becoming a Rural Lawyer: A Personal Guide to Establishing a Small Town Practice, and blogs at Rural Lawyer. He was featured as an ABA Journal Legal Rebel in 2010.

Lorelei Laird is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal. She joined the ABA Journal staff in 2013. She had been a freelance writer for the ABA Journal, California Lawyer, Working Mother and Planning, among other publications. Before that, she was a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and community newspapers in Texas.