Practicing Law in Small Town America

Richard L. Hermann

Small-town America is not what it used to be. The transportation and communications revolutions have spread the advantages and amenities of big cities into less populous regions—and, in many cases, these regions are still very much underserved by the legal community. Moreover, housing is affordable, commuting to and from work is not an issue, and schools have fewer problems than their urban counterparts.

Surveys and statistics can be valuable indicators of where to locate a law practice. The information you glean from respected sources should definitely be incorporated into your decision about the best place(s) for you to practice law.

Small-Town Opportunities in Otherwise “Overlawyered” States

Metropolitan areas are almost always going to present a higher attorney concentration than “micropolitan” and rural areas of the state. The supply of attorneys in Bismarck, North Dakota, is likely to be very different from what it is in sparsely populated regions of the state. Nonmetro areas of highly populated states such as California, Texas, New York, or Florida may be likely to be underserved by attorneys.

Following the Census Trail

The US Bureau of the Census is a good starting point for your locational analysis. Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming were all beneficiaries of substantial in-migration. Several southern and border states also were attractive to relocators, including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Dive Deeper

The Census Bureau’s State and County Quickfacts database has excellent statistics available down to the county level.

The 2009 Sourcebook of Zip Code Demographics, 23rd Edition, a compendium of detailed demographic, business, consumer spending, and “tapestry segmentation” data for every US ZIP Code, is a good source for determining the underlying reasons behind the changes in population.

County Business Patterns 2010, an annual series of economic data by industry, is useful for studying small-area economic activity and analyzing economic changes over time. A comparable publication, Zip Code Business Patterns, enables you to fine-tune the county information for smaller areas.

The American Community Survey is an annual survey that provides updated data on age, gender, race, country of origin, family and relationships, income and benefits, health insurance, education, veteran status, disabilities, housing, where people work and how they got there, where they live, and how much they pay for some essentials. It also includes state rankings across 86 variables, as well as comparisons of counties for key variables.

Practicing Law in Small-Town America

The Avery Index

The Avery Index ( is the source of some very useful statistics about attorney populations—the most worthwhile being the per-capita attorney population of each state. At first glance, you will see that the states with the fewest attorneys per 10,000 population are the ones that first come to mind when you think of sparsely populated areas.

The most legally “underserved” states in order by fewest attorneys per 10,000 people

North Dakota: 4.4

Arkansas: 5.3

Kansas: 5.8

South Dakota: 5.8

Idaho: 6.1

Iowa: 6.2

Wisconsin: 6.8

New Mexico: 6.8

Indiana: 6.9

Kentucky: 7.1

One of the most striking pieces of information derived from this list is that there are 35 states that have fewer than 10 attorneys per 10,000 population. At the other end of the list stands the District of Columbia, with 277 attorneys for every 10,000 residents—an attorney density that is more than 1,300 percent greater than any other jurisdiction.

Excerpted from Practicing Law in Small-Town America by Richard L. Hermann, published by the American Bar Association. Available at a discount to ABA members.


Richard L. Hermann

Richard L. Hermann is a professor at Concord Law School, teaching the only full-semester course in legal career management in the United States. His Future Interests blog appears twice a week on, and he is the author of many books on legal careers. He was the co-founder of Federal Reports Inc., the leading U.S. provider of legal career information, and of and Law Student Jobs Online, as well as a principal in Nationwide Career Counseling for Attorneys and Sutherland Hermann Associates, a legal outplacement and disability insurance consulting firm. He is a graduate of Yale, the New School University, Cornell Law School, and the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's School. He also served with the U.S. Army NATO Atomic Demolitions Munitions Team.