Associates in the Trenches
It Pays to Run the Numbers When Moving to Practice in a Smaller or Larger City
Posted Oct 29, 2005 2:30 AM CST
By Lisa Holton
The big city has its charms, and folks in small towns swear by the laid-back lifestyle. But how should associates practicing in either market prepare if they decide to make a demographic shift and enter a different sized market?
It helps to think beyond the courtroom or outside the next complaint and really do your homework on any target area, say associates who have made the leap. Better yet, approach the moving process with the mindset of a real estate developer, an entrepreneur or even the CEO of a diversified company.
That’s how Philip Mack Furlow was able to make the transition from seasoned small town practitioner to associate at a nine lawyer firm just outside Dallas.
For 12 years, Furlow was a solo in Lamesa, a small West Texas town where his grandparents had settled to raise cotton. It was a great place to start a practice, he says. His hometown roots opened many doors with clients early in his practice. “In Texas, a name means a lot,” he says.
Plus the local bar association, which consisted of only a handful of attorneys, was equally welcoming. “They pushed business to me, which certainly wouldn’t be as likely in a big city,” Furlow says. “It wasn’t their most lucrative business, but it allowed me to get a start.”
Even judges, who, like the attorneys, commuted hundreds of miles a month through a four county service area, would sit down with him after cases concluded and give him pointers on what worked and what didn’t. Says Furlow: “Where else could that happen besides a small town?”
But this year, Furlow moved his practice to Hayes, Berry, White & McMurray in Denton, Texas, a far suburb of Dallas that boasts the University of North Texas and a population of about 100,000. Why? Because jobs were evaporating in Lamesa and the surrounding towns. And Furlow saw the handwriting on the wall.
Furlow decided to make the leap to a larger market by following his head more than his heart.
“We thought long and hard about leaving,” he explains. “My son was able to go to the same school that I did, and that meant a lot to me. But enrollment was falling, and the quality of that education was falling, too. The people I worked for were the same people I saw at the grocery store. That was also very important to me and still is. But even if you have a 5,000 to 1 client attorney ratio, it means nothing if you’re forced to adapt your practice to serve people who can’t afford to pay you or if you have to do law you don’t really want to do.”
Furlow points out that his new firm job as an associate in agricultural law will not only leverage his rural contacts, but also will position him well for doing business with clients in Dallas. He thinks Denton is a good mix of small town with big city possibilities. “Attorneys may want to be part of a small town, and that can be a terrific opportunity. But the question isn’t how great the picture looks now. The question is, ‘How is that town going to look 10 to 20 years from now?’ Today’s quaint town may be a ghost town a decade from now.”
Ensuring a Client Base
It’s important to do your homework, says Chip Rodgers of the Rodgers Law Firm in Burgaw, N.C. Rodgers decided to commit to a small town practice after doing an extensive business plan while completing his combined J.D./MBA at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.
Even before starting law school, Rodgers knew that big firm life was not for him. He had experienced more than his share of corporation culture when, after college, he spent some time working at a large insurance practice in London. So when it came time to plan his career, he was determined to find a way to hang out his shingle and make it pay off. It wasn’t nostalgia that led him to the mostly rural community in southeastern North Carolina. Rather, it was number crunching, pure and simple.
“I found that Pender County was the sixth least represented market in the state,” Rodgers says. A call to the state bar revealed a client attorney ratio of between 2,000 and 2,500 to 1.
He checked census data for economic and employment information, finding that he could make a healthy living in workers’ compensation, disability and criminal law. He even checked on such diverse data as auto accident statistics, which resulted in a finding that crashes happening on high speed rural roads generally yield higher awards in court.
“Based on what I saw, I decided I’d have to be incompetent not to make money here,” Rodgers concludes. And within three years, his one man practice now supports Rodgers, his father (a retired attorney), his mother (the office manager) and four other staff members in what he describes as a “paperless office.”
He’s also taken a tactical approach to diversification. For example, he researched the dearth of title insurance companies in his area and decided to start one himself. He knew that if he did that, he couldn’t keep his real estate clients--that would conflict with the title company’s interests. But he correctly betted that the business would be more lucrative than the work he’d have to give up.
Rodgers has definitely been able to find success without the big city. And even though Furlow has moved to a larger market, he remains enthusiastic about small town practice. The real benefit of being a small town lawyer, he says, is that it makes you a better all around attorney.
“In small towns, all law is face to face. You may do an entire family’s estate work and then months later get a call at 2 a.m. to come get one of their teenagers out of jail for a DUI,” Furlow explains. “There’s no such thing as a true specialty practice in a small town. You must be ready for anything.”
Demographic Decision Making
After you’ve done your demographic homework, don’t forget to consider the effect that moving to a different market will have on your practice and how you will find new business. Here are some actions to take:
Learn where potential clients work and how much they make. Learn whether these income trends are long or short term.
Check business formations, business closures and relocations along with personal and business bankruptcy figures.
Check the immigrant population and whether there are opportunities there; these populations can be a boon to your practice in smaller markets, too.
Check proximity to airports and other transportation that will help you commute to business in larger and neighboring markets.
Check the health of nearby colleges and universities economically healthy colleges usually go hand in hand with economically healthy communities.
Understand the depth of residential and commercial development, especially in smaller towns and nearby communities.
Know the availability and build out costs of local office space so you can recoup your office investment.
If you’re moving to a small town, be prepared to earn less and take on more clients because small town fees are typically lower than the rates in big cities. If you’re moving to a larger city, be mindful that bigger salaries can be eaten up by a corresponding increase in living expenses.
Plan to get involved in your state bar association so you’ll have networking opportunities.
Leverage technology when appropriate.
Look to diversify with business and public sector revenue opportunities that don’t conflict with your current practice.
Make an exit plan. Know how to wind down or sell your practice in case you get sick of Mayberry or sour on the Big Apple.