“As midlife crises go, law school was less risky than either a mistress or a sports car,” jests Bruce Cameron, a biomedical researcher who at 47 launched a straight-from-law-school, rural solo practice two years ago. For the tech-savvy Cameron, building a practice that caters to farmers and small-town folk added another weight to the complexity scale.
By 2002, Cameron had reached a crossroads in his career. The principal investigator at his Rochester, Minn.-based laboratory had announced plans to retire, and Cameron faced the choice of retooling his skills to re-enter the marketplace or trying something completely different.
So in 2003, at age 42, Cameron sat in his first civil procedure class, armed with a plan to market his science background to established intellectual property practices. However, Cameron’s neighbors had other plans in mind.
One of the traits of a small town is that the minute one resident does something unusual, it becomes the business of the entire town. And Cameron’s hometown of Mazeppa, Minn., has a population of about 800, a couple of stop signs and not a single traffic light.
“Everyone knew I was going to law school,” Cameron says. While the town’s inhabitants patiently listened—with glazed expressions—to Cameron explain exactly what a patent lawyer does, the conversation always ended with the same rumination: Mazeppa hadn’t had its own attorney since old Mr. Smith gave up his practice some years ago.
“The first time you hear it, it’s a compliment,” Cameron says. “After a while, though, the thought gets stuck in the back of your mind and you start really thinking about it.”
Cameron graduated from law school in December 2007 and passed the bar in the spring of 2008, But—frustrated by an unsuccessful on-campus interview season, unanswered job inquiries and dead-end law firm interviews—Cameron spent eight months researching business strategies and building a network of mentors to help him strike out on his own. He took on small legal tasks for his neighbors, which boosted his confidence. He also clocked more than 100 hours of continuing legal education in his first year, particularly in business and client management, and conducted a survey of his client base to determine the best ways to meet their needs.
Again, his neighbors had their own agenda. Cameron had planned to be a house-call lawyer, a strategy that conflicted with the mindset of a community that desired the trappings of a formal legal practice. His clients wanted to be able to go into town and stop at the bank, the feed store and the lawyer’s office. Many rural households had multiple generations living on shared land, and they valued the ability to handle sensitive legal matters in the privacy of a lawyer’s office.
Technology was another surprising barrier between Cameron and his potential clients.
“Farmers aren’t out surfing the Web,” says Cameron, who was amazed to discover more than half his potential client base didn’t have high-speed Internet, and only a third used the Web for tasks other than e-mail.
“I love technology, but technology is a double-edged sword,” says Cameron, now 49. “It can enhance productivity and efficiency, but it can also distract and have a very poor return on investment.”
He adds, “Your mindset changes when you start to look at your target audience. They had a different view from what I saw as essential.”
So the best piece of technology to market to Cameron’s clients is a plastic, personalized pen that includes his firm name and phone number.
“If I walk into a gas station, a cafe or the feed store, I leave a pen. I drop these wherever I can,” says Cameron. The former science nerd says he needs a pocket protector because he carries so many of the popular calling cards.
“They’ve gone viral,” he laughs. He also employs old-fashioned print campaigns.
That’s not to say technology doesn’t have a place in his practice. Cameron is a fan of cloud computing and has slowly acclimated clients to collaborative law, nonhourly billing practices and alternative dispute resolution.
However, Cameron knows the key to his practice is not to lose sight of his clients’ values. According to his blog, Rural Lawyer, which he calls a resource for law students and fellow attorneys contemplating rural practice, law practice is about “having your niche defined by your location and not by how you market your practice area.”
“Here I am, a high-tech person who loves to live on the cutting edge of technology,” Cameron says, “and a simple thing like a pen is one of my most powerful tools.”