The lure of BigLaw and big cities may stir some. But for a certain solo breed, the small town is the place to be.
Posted Nov 1, 2009 10:30 PM CST
By Leslie A. Gordon
Situated halfway between Wichita, Kan., and Tulsa, Okla., lies the town of Sedan. It is a popular destination for hunters and known for having the world’s longest yellow brick road; its economic base is rooted in cattle, oil and tourism. With a population of roughly 1,200, Sedan is the largest city in Chautauqua County.
The January 2009 ad, placed by a local real estate broker in The Journal of the Kansas Bar Association, was at once plaintive and blunt:
“We, the people of Sedan, Kan., have a dire need for an attorney. Chautauqua County has one remaining attorney, who is looking forward to retirement.”
The call attracted the attention of G. Thomas Harris, 65, who 18 months earlier had closed his general law practice in Richmond, Mo., 250 miles from Sedan. After taking some time off, which included developing case-management software with his computer programmer son, Harris opened a new law office across the street from Sedan’s courthouse.
Handling family law, estate planning, real estate law, criminal law, administrative law and personal injury matters, Harris, a grandfather of six, felt himself drawn to Sedan’s relaxed setting.
Tiana McElroy hadn’t seen the bar journal ad. But having grown up in northeast Kansas, and having worked in several small Kansas towns, McElroy thought Sedan would be a perfect complement to her office in nearby Coffeyville.
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“I went to law school because I wanted to make a difference,” she says. And she decided Sedan was the kind of place where she could.
“I liked the people. I liked the town,” she recalls of Sedan. “They were in need of attorneys.”
Upon opening her Sedan office, McElroy placed a newspaper ad, giving her location as, simply, “between the Norgan’s Sedan barber shop and Tom McCann’s restaurant.” She planned to charge clients $125 an hour but, given the recession, she decided to charge $80. Typical of a small-town practice, many Sedan residents stopped by McElroy’s office just to talk.
For many lawyers, opening a rural solo practice could be the result of a long-held dream to be a big fish in a little pond or purely a recession-driven lack of choices. Either way, many lawyers are finding that small-town practices are rewarding, challenging and, in some cases, lucrative. Rural attorneys discover that they enjoy helping neighbors, owning their own cases and, for some, watching their practices flow with farming seasons.
Kansas has only 5.8 lawyers per 10,000 residents, according to the AveryIndex, an online ranking site. The only states with fewer lawyers per capita are Arkansas (5.3) and North Dakota (4.4).
But supply and demand is only one small part of the calculus connected with the rural and small-town practice. It’s a choice that is usually “very personal,” says Northford, Conn., attorney Susan Cartier Liebel, who is the founder of Solo Practice University. “The lawyer may have an attachment to that area or be seeking a particular quality of life.”
Liebel seldom sees lawyers up and move from, say, Manhattan to Montana if there’s no prior connection. “Most business comes from people who know, like and trust you. If you have no connections in a community where everyone knows everyone else, you’ve constructed other obstacles,” she explains. Small-town solos tend to have grown up in the area—or one like it.
Although rural communities tend to “embrace their own,” the basics of opening a rural practice are the same as in the big city, according to Liebel. “Given technology and the way it allows once-disconnected and distant communities to have global access, one has to be well-positioned and do all the very same things those in a highly competitive and lawyer-dense community would have to do,” she explains.
For her part, McElroy says that she was accepted “very quickly,” not just as a new attorney in Sedan “but as a member of the community.”
For attorneys who are interested in rural practices, “the mental hurdles are the greatest,” Liebel says. “The rest is formulaic.” Often their biggest concern is not having interaction with other people, especially other lawyers. “But with social media and technology, lawyers have the ability to practice in so many ways so differently now. That concern disappears.”
While generalized practices are the norm for lawyers in one-horse towns, experts insist that specialized lawyers can similarly thrive in rural areas. According to Harris, when a small-town lawyer provides good service, word spreads quickly and “you will end up with a lot of clients” no matter what your area of expertise. He advises opening an office in a visible location near the courthouse and participating in the community through the chamber of commerce and service clubs like Rotary.
Join your local bar association’s e-mail discussion list and participate. And if your bar doesn’t have one, start one, he adds.
Surprisingly, establishing an office is not necessarily cheaper in rural areas given possible long drives to court and high-priced office space in towns with few corporate buildings. Phone, cell and Internet service can be pricey in sparsely populated areas.
At the same time, “it’s never been cheaper” to open a solo practice, Liebel says. “With technology, a lawyer doesn’t necessarily need the overhead of an office. Lawyers can get clients through social media, not just the Yellow Pages.”
But after opening her Sedan office, McElroy only managed to pick up a handful of clients. “I think it’s the economy,” she says. “If people had more resources, I think they would have contacted me. I just couldn’t hold out.”
McElroy closed her office in Sedan. She still has her Coffeyville office and is retooling her business model to make it work financially. “I also travel to Elk County [Howard, Kan.], which is pretty small. Really, most areas around here are small,” she says. “Howard seems smaller to me than Sedan, but I may be wrong. Most attorneys in the area, of which there are not many, travel to other counties to represent people. That is what I do.”
Photo by Matt Seefeldt
Click here to view a gallery of Mazeppa
Sixty miles southeast of Minneapolis, Mazeppa is a prototypical American farm town of fewer than 1,000 residents, where visitors are just as likely to see tractors driving down the road as cars.
On his small Mazeppa farm, law-yer Bruce Cameron keeps chickens, geese and horses, raises hay and butchers animals for food. “A [farming] hobbyist compared to neighbors,” Cameron is transitioning from his work as a senior programmer at a Mayo Clinic research lab to serving as a full-time solo attorney for Mazeppa farmers. With lawyering as his second career, Cameron is “still so green, I squeak.”
He went to law school with dreams of being an IP lawyer but, he says, “not being in the top 10 percent of the class, being a second-career student and a 40-something competing with 20-somethings” put a damper on those plans. At the same time, his mentor, a solo practitioner in nearby Rochester, Minn., told Cameron that his own biggest mistake was not going solo right out of law school.
Meanwhile, whenever he chatted with his neighbors about his post-graduation plans, the conversation inevitably ended with Cameron hearing, “We could really use an attorney around here,” he recalls. “With one little firm in a town north of me, my community was an underserved population. There’s not a lot of competition.”
He opened his doors at the beginning of the year, expecting to primarily handle wills and trusts, family law, bankruptcy and real estate matters. He bills clients $125 an hour, and he’ll take on some small matters for a flat fee. Because his neighbors often tell him he’ll be hired when “the second crop of hay is done,” Cameron plans “to swing with the seasons.”
Cameron, who blogs about his solo practice at rurallawyer.com, worked out of his car and home at first, but eventually opened an actual office.
“I had planned to meet my clients in their homes, but I did a market survey and found that the majority of people thought that having an office was more convenient,” Cameron explains. “They go into town, see their bank, their feed dealer. Seeing a lawyer in town is convenient because they’re already out. Also, farms are multigenerational and some people don’t want their kids and grandkids knowing their business. People also felt that if I was coming to them, they couldn’t afford me.”
Cameron had originally planned to open an office in Mazeppa, but that proved more difficult than he anticipated. So when his mentor offered an empty office on the outskirts of Rochester, Cameron jumped at the chance.
Regarding his unorthodox career choice, Cameron quips, “I’m hoping it’s a good idea once the abject terror wears off.” In a more serious vein, he adds, “Out here, this is my community. I can serve it, I can make a profit doing it. It’s exciting, scary, terrifying. On the other hand, it just felt right to do it.”
For attorneys who may similarly be considering a rural practice, Cameron advises they ask themselves, “Can you make the transition from being an employee to doing the business of law? If that doesn’t send you running to the hills, look around. There are a lot of small communities out there where you can be the only fish in the pond.”
Photo by Robert Bittle
Click here to view a gallery of Waxahachie
A quaint town 30 minutes south of Dallas, Waxahachie features Victorian architecture and gingerbread homes, many converted into bed and breakfasts. The seat of Ellis County, Waxahachie has a population of around 27,000. Unlike many other cities surrounding Dallas, it is not a big-city suburb but a touristy small town with its own identity.
After working for a few years at a Dallas firm, Brooke Daves determined that she preferred real estate transactional work. She’d also become eager to own her own cases, and have more time with her young daughters.
Daves had been influenced by her experience serving clients from her firm’s small satellite office in Wills Point, a tiny town east of Dallas. “The clients we served from Wills Point were always so appreciative, down to earth, and very respectful of my time,” she recalls. “They understood and appreciated the fact that my family was my priority, and they did not expect me to be working at 8 at night unless absolutely necessary. They also were very grateful when I was working for them, no matter how much time it took me.”
So this past January, Daves hung her shingle in Waxahachie, the small town in which she lives. She specializes in real estate and corporate formation as well as probate matters and wills. “People told me I’d have to be a general practitioner [to get work as a small-town solo], but I’ve made it clear this is what I’m focusing on,” she explains. “I’ve enjoyed practicing law more the last several months than the last four years altogether. I can stand out more here than I could in Dallas.”
In particular, Daves loves her Waxahachie clients who, like those from Wills Point, are extremely appreciative of her services. “They continue to tell me ‘thank you’ time after time,” she says. “I have received anything from a gift card to chocolate chip cookies from clients, not instead of payment of my fees, but in addition.”
With her name alone on the letterhead, Daves has a new pride in ownership of her work. “There is something very satisfying about hearing a client say, ‘I am so glad I hired you. You have really protected my interests and represented me well.’ ”
Her website, while “nothing fancy,” has landed Daves most of her clients, generating several calls a week. Clients have also found her through the Texas state bar referral program and the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce. Daves charges clients either an hourly rate or a flat fee.
One of the biggest challenges of small-town practice, Daves says, is “breaking into the clique and making a name for myself. There are a lot of attorneys here who’ve been here for 30 years, and wealthy people tend to stick together.” Her husband grew up in the next town over, which has helped Daves in making connections.
But Daves insists lawyers can break into small-town cliques even without connections by simply getting involved in local activities. “Anything from the local SPCA to a running group to a church to a playgroup for your kids,” she says. “People want to see the real side of you, and if they get to know you outside of work, then they are more willing to trust you when they need a lawyer.”
She also says that good work is quickly noticed in small towns, not just by potential clients but by other counsel. “I recently represented a client in purchasing some commercial property in the area, and I had the opportunity to work across the table from a very well-respected local attorney in the area who was representing the seller. Within a week after the closing, the attorney called me with a referral of a client he used to have, whom he could no longer represent now that he was in-house counsel for a local company.”
Like many rural practitioners, Daves says the ABA’s Solosez discussion group, an online community of more than 3,500 solo and small-firm practitioners, has been “a lifesaver. That’s where I learned how important it was to have a good website. That’s what’s hard about being alone [in practice]: You don’t have people to bounce ideas off of.”
Daves adds that rural lawyers need “a little entrepreneurial spirit to take on the fear and headaches,” which include “wondering when things get slow if I’ll have enough work to pay the bills next month to wondering when things get busy if I’m going to be able to get everything done well for my clients.” But Daves definitely recommends practicing in a rural town “as long as you’re willing to take a little bit of risk.”
West Milford, New Jersey
Photo by Scott Pasfield
Click here to view a gallery of West Milford
Located in Passaic County, with a population of around 26,000, West Milford is a large but sparsely populated town in the northwest corner of New Jersey. Set in the state’s mountain and lakes region, West Milford was for decades a rural, residential community with a handful of service stations, small eating establishments and banks. It now features a ShopRite, a few fast-food restaurants and a movie theater.
Laura Mann’s legal background includes work at a small, albeit busy, commercial real estate firm in Manhattan and a legal aid organization in Columbus, Ohio. But when Mann decided to become a single mom, she determined that she wanted her daughter to grow up with cousins. Her brother had already discovered the community of West Milford. Having grown up in northern New Jersey, Mann was drawn to the town’s “laid-back lifestyle” and the fact that it was “more affordable than most of New Jersey.” Because the closest big city is a 45-minute drive, Mann figured that a local lawyer could do well there.
She set up shop two years ago, working three days a week in an office and the other four days at home. Her practice focused initially on family law, but Mann now also handles civil litigation, landlord-tenant, wills, municipal court, domestic violence, probate, small business and employment matters. “I can learn,” she says about the new areas of law. “It’s what lawyers do.”
Unlike the compartmentalized practices of many big-city lawyers, Mann finds that small-town work offers a lot of variety.
“One day recently, I was drafting a will in the morning, working on a real estate purchase, then in court defending a client’s criminal charges followed by a consultation with a new potential client on construction and breach-of-contract litigation. The next day I’m working on a few divorces, a nonparent pursuing support for the child over whom he’s had custody, drafting a deed, defending collection, and pursuing a dealer who violated the state’s lemon laws.”
Mann has also found that litigation is often a last resort for parties to disputes in small towns. “People know each other and are more inclined to pursue more creative and less contentious solutions,” she says. Also, lawyers are more cordial in small towns, Mann adds. “That’s not to say that we are not zealously representing our clients. We are. This may sound corny, but it seems to me that practice in a small town is more about righting wrongs and pursuing justice and less about who can play the game better and ‘win.’ ”
Marketing and building a practice in a small town has highlighted the differences from the big city. “In the city, it seemed to me to be all about having the best reputation, the best price,” she says. In a small town, on the other hand, “the most effective marketing is getting to know people, becoming part of the community and being someone those seeking a lawyer feel they can trust.” Mann adds that the pace of practice is less frenetic in a small town when there’s less litigation and fewer people, opposing parties and opposing counsel.
Of the challenges of small-town solo practices, Mann says, “I’ve never run my own business before. Now I’m the accountant, secretary, marketer, janitor. I wear many hats. Having to do everything is very exciting and stimulating, but intimidating and scary.” Other challenges include figuring out “how to get clients to pay you. Picking the right clients is a necessary, learned skill.”
But, she adds, “I love being my own boss and having control.” For big-city, big-firm lawyers who may be considering a shift to rural solo practice, Mann says, “I’ll steal Nike’s logo and say, ‘Do it.’ If you’re a self-starter and social, if you can work independently and like variety and challenges,” rural solo practice may be a perfect match.
Leslie A. Gordon, a former lawyer, is a legal journalist based in San Francisco.