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6,250:1: Remaining Relevant as a Rural Lawyer? Its All About Ratios

William Montgomery

6,250:1: Remaining Relevant as a Rural Lawyer? Its All About Ratios
James Brey via iStock

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I am 24 years old and have been practicing law in rural Hope, Arkansas, for approximately 19 months. After graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, I immediately opened my solo law practice in Hope. At that time, there were three lawyers practicing law “full time” and two lawyers who provided very limited representation to a select few clients. I became the fourth full-time private practice lawyer to serve all of Hempstead County’s 25,000 residents. That would make my individual share of the population to be approximately 6,250 people.

Hope has a population of roughly 10,000 and is located in southwest Arkansas on Interstate 30 between Little Rock and Texarkana, where you have to drive for beer. This part of the South has been made famous by several country music singers. See “East Bound and Down” by Jerry Reed, made famous in the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit and Little Rock; see also “Little Rock” by Reba McEntire (1986), “Little Rock” by Collin Raye (1994). Little Rock has also been described as a “fine town” by Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the film Forrest Gump (1994).

Hope is famous for 200-pound watermelons and the birthplaces and/or homes of President Bill Clinton, Arkansas governor and past presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, and US congressman and Arkansas gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross, among others.

I believe I was the only one in my graduating class of approximately 120 to immediately open a solo practice, and I chose to do so in a rural community. I went back to Hope partially because it was my home—I am a fourth-generation resident of Hempstead County, Arkansas. But returning to Hope wasn’t only about family—it’s really a numbers game. I had a law professor who told me early on there were only an abundance of lawyers on both coasts and towns in the Midwest that end in “-icago.” The rest of America simply lacks lawyers, especially rural communities, which I believe are starving for lawyers. There are counties in Arkansas with no lawyers at all. I was able to open a solo practice fresh out of law school and I have my quarter-share of the representation in this county.

Imagine for a moment being the attorney for 6,250 people whenever any legal need arises. That ratio, applied in a town in the Midwest that ended in “-icago,” would mean there would be 435.04 lawyers in Chicago, 621.44 in Los Angeles, and 1,344.96 in New York.

I can talk a lot about how to open a solo practice: how to “buy” legitimacy (rent in a building that contains a successful business, like a bank), or how to filter out clients and cases that aren’t worth the hassle. (Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said it best: “Just Say No.”) However, the bottom line is this: there are thousands of small-ish ponds out there that would love for you to be their big fish.

I know just about every single business owner, loan officer, insurance agent, restaurateur, and government official in Hempstead County. An article about rural lawyering may sound like it is a plea for you to forsake your big-city career and go volunteer for poor people, but there are lots of places just like Hope that have thousands of potential clients who have the need and ability to hire (and pay) for quality local representation. When I was in law school, I worked for a catastrophic injury firm in Northwest Arkansas, and the majority of the firm’s cases, despite how much they advertised, were referrals from small-town lawyers (with favorable fee-sharing agreements for the small-town lawyer). The people in those towns form relationships with their local attorney, who they visit first.

Rural lawyers don’t represent people anymore—they represent entire families. So throughout a career, you may represent three generations of the same family. That is client retention that I would imagine some lawyers dream about.

Don’t take pity on a small-town lawyer (and “don’t trust your soul to no backwoods southern lawyer”). See “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” originally performed by Vicki Lawrence, made popular by Reba McEntire. There are very real economic advantages to rural representation (6,250:1), as well as fringe benefits from being a decent-sized fish in a moderately sized pond.