Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

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markesquire
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Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by markesquire » Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:02 pm

Background: I'm 34 years old, living in DC, working as a litigator for a federal agency. With the exception of a mortgage, I'm debt-free. I attended a lower-ranked school because they offered me a full ride. Before my current job, I clerked for a federal judge and spent several years at a mid-sized law firm in a mid-sized city in the midwest.

Questions: Does anyone have experience with legal work in small towns? What do you do? How much do you earn? How does it compare to practice in bigger cities?

I'm doing well in my current job, and it is less stressful than my law-firm experience (no timekeeping, billing, networking, intra-office politics, etc.). But I occasionally think about leaving the city for a small town. I'm originally from a small town in the midwest, and while the east coast suits me better, I would appreciate the sense of community, lower cost of living, lower stress/noise, and greater access to nature in a small town.

The ABA and state bar journals keep talking about a rural "lawyer shortage." They say that small towns have very few lawyers, and that the lawyers that do exist are within 5 years of retirement. The implication is that there is abundant work; that all you have to do is show up and write your paycheck. But there's not much talk about demand (whether population is declining with lawyers, or whether those with legal needs can afford to pay).

Part of me has an idealistic vision: biking or walking to work, having a very relaxed schedule, working on things that actually matter to people I know, being a big fish in a small pond. But part of me fears the worst: throwing away a good job in DC and realizing that I'll work twice as hard for half the money, and will have diminished my options by doing so.

Does anyone have any perspective to offer? For the past couple of decades, cities have been all the rage, and I definitely see their appeal. But, I wonder if rural areas are under appreciated, and present an opportunity for geographic/demographic arbitrage.

golfCaddy
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by golfCaddy » Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:44 pm

How rural are you talking about? Are you talking about counties under 15k in population?

fabis
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by fabis » Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:47 pm

lawyers are a dime a dozen. what is your specialty going to be? lots of money in p.i.

totallystudly
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by totallystudly » Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:49 pm

They say that small towns have very few lawyers, and that the lawyers that do exist are within 5 years of retirement. The implication is that there is abundant work; that all you have to do is show up and write your paycheck.
First whomever says this nonsense needs to be flogged in the public square. Legal work today is very much decentralized and is generally irrelevant to location. I have had multiple lawyers represent me in issues and I have never met them in person. I don't care where they work outside of being admitted to practice in the area I need them. There is abundant legal work everywhere, what I see is a dearth of skilled professionals willing to actually do the work.

Law schools used to peddle this crap about just show up and you'll get paid and they got sued for misrepresentation.

Two main questions: I would have are what kind of legal work do you want to do/are you good at?

Civil? Criminal? Admin? Plaintiff? Defense? Litigation?

Are you trying to join a firm or start your own?

I know a buddy that does oil/gas work in smaller towns and is getting paid maybe 85-90k, which is statistically just slightly above average for what most lawyers make. Hedrives around a lot and he is hardly making a ton of money.

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warowits
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by warowits » Sun Apr 22, 2018 10:36 pm

markesquire wrote:
Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:02 pm

Does anyone have any perspective to offer? For the past couple of decades, cities have been all the rage, and I definitely see their appeal. But, I wonder if rural areas are under appreciated, and present an opportunity for geographic/demographic arbitrage.
I grew up in a very small town (15k in the whole county), and practice in a medium sized town (about 70k population). Really small towns can be weird with conflicts (both legal and personal) and small town lawyers seem to have to do many different types of law just to get enough clients. I expect if I moved back to my home town I would take a significant salary hit. Small towns are also likely to have a lawyer or two around who grew up there and you may be viewed as a bit of an outsider, rather than a big fish in a small pond.
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jminv
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by jminv » Mon Apr 23, 2018 12:11 am

markesquire wrote:
Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:02 pm

The ABA and state bar journals keep talking about a rural "lawyer shortage." They say that small towns have very few lawyers, and that the lawyers that do exist are within 5 years of retirement. The implication is that there is abundant work; that all you have to do is show up and write your paycheck. But there's not much talk about demand (whether population is declining with lawyers, or whether those with legal needs can afford to pay).
This is very unlikely to be true. There are still a lot of lawyers and a general legal fee compression trend. This is just anecotdal, but I used a lawyer in a ssmall town recently and my feeling was that the lawyer needed work and I negotiated accordingly. As a federal lawyer, you're likely paid more than you would receive, on average, as a small town private lawyer.

Why don't you transfer to a regional office for your federal agency, or another agency, in an area you like? It could let you live in a small town while enjoying federal pay+benefits plus keeping your accrued pension benefits. There's no reason to stay in DC if you don't want to.

Osprey
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by Osprey » Mon Apr 23, 2018 12:17 am

Have you considered continuing as federal attorney but outside DC? I was in private practice in DC and then took an attorney position in New England. I live in a small town and have a sophisticated legal practice with a wonderful work life balance.

warner25
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by warner25 » Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:38 am

markesquire wrote:
Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:02 pm
...Part of me has an idealistic vision: biking or walking to work...
I'm not a lawyer, but I wanted to comment on this part. Unless you already have a special place in mind, this may be difficult to find. In my experience, the infrastructure and fabric that make walking and bicycling appealing is almost non-existent in small towns in rural areas. I've lived at both ends of the spectrum, and I've only been able to comfortably walk or bicycle to work in big cities, with Arlington/DC being one of them. In small towns you might have a historic center with a few blocks of old buildings close together and a sidewalk, but it will probably be hollowed out by the strip malls and big-box store plazas along the highway on the outskirts of town. Expect to spend a lot of time driving at high speed on roads with no shoulder. My wife and I always smirk when we see the idealistic depictions of small towns on TV.

Edited to add: With that said, my wife and I are still looking forward to moving from DC back to a smaller town with less congestion, lower prices, etc.
Last edited by warner25 on Mon Apr 23, 2018 12:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Glockenspiel
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by Glockenspiel » Mon Apr 23, 2018 9:25 am

I am not a lawyer but an engineer, and I also fantasize about moving back to my small town of under 3,000 people. Much lower cost of living, slightly lower salary, can live extremely well in a small town, sense of community, smaller schools with more opportunities for the kids to play more sports, kids walking to school, no commute, spend more time with your kids, and just take a slower pace to life.

In my experience in the Midwest, it seems that lawyers in very small towns do things like be the city attorney for several smaller towns, do tax and estate law for farmers and others, family law, etc.

I could buy the biggest house in town for probably 250k and have much lower expenses, allowing me to retire earlier than if I continue doing the rat race every day. I don't know that I'll be able to get my wife on board, but I do dream about it.

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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by LarryAllen » Mon Apr 23, 2018 9:33 am

I have built a very successful practice in a mid-sized city. I could easily replicate this in a small town as could you. Being smart with the law is great but to build a business you have to have a good personality, some knack for marketing/networking, and some patience. I stress the patience because it takes time to build a practice. As a new lawyer you could take all business that comes in the door but that obviously comes with risk and non-billable time also. Or you could focus on a few areas of law and build your business when times are slow. This is what I have done. After 25 years I am the go-to guy for my area of law but it took time. An incredible snow ball building as time has ticked away as various referral sources come together. If you end up really rural I think hourly rates would be low, you would have a broad practice (too many practice areas for my liking), and you would probably be a one man show. You could make a decent living but probably nothing huge (just a guess). It may be exactly as you desire (biking to work and the whole bit). I certainly wish you luck.

vaught
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by vaught » Mon Apr 23, 2018 9:45 am

I think you have gotten pretty good advice on what to expect in terms of a "rural" law practice. You will be more of a generalist and find it more difficult to specialize in a particular area of law. The small town attorneys I know that do well seem to have more of a "volume" practice. Lots of real estate work. Lots of family law work (ton of this work available unlike most areas of law but brings about its own challenges).

In terms of skillsets, if you are litigating in federal courts in D.C., that is experience that 95% of attorneys do not have. That is a valuable skill and likely worth more than learning a brand new practice in a rural area.

Perhaps you are totally against working for a firm but providing that skill to a firm in a medium sized city would be a good alternative to Washington, D.C.

DC3509
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by DC3509 » Mon Apr 23, 2018 10:01 am

So, I grew up in a very small town, and now also live in DC and work as an attorney. Growing up, some of my friends had parents who were attorneys in town, and my mom had some intersection with the justice system in her career, so I feel like I know something about this.

As others have mentioned, small towns can be very parochial -- the good news is that nobody will care where you went to law school, the bad news is that everyone will care where you went to high school. If you are a true interloper, i.e., you have no connection to the community whatsoever, you could be viewed suspiciously by long-term residents. You will also probably find that people who have far less legal knowledge than you, but who have superior connections because they played football in high school, or whatever, might be viewed as the pillars of the legal community. It is tough to put a price on that, but could be grating over time.

That said, if you did move somewhere and essentially "took over" somebody's practice who was close to retirement, you might be able to overcome these factors. But "fitting in" with the town is not going to happen overnight, and will take lots of community involvement -- joining a church, volunteering for boards, going to every spaghetti dinner in town, etc. Do you want to do these things? I find that most people in the DC area have little interest in community stuff like this, for better or worse. If you have kids, that could help -- you'll meet other parents through school, etc.

As for the actual practice and the money -- if you are successful, I think you can do pretty well for yourself, and probably even better than you would in DC. Most of the attorneys I knew growing up were the ones who were "considered" wealthy by the town's standards. Yes, perhaps, some of that was fluff, but they had to actually make the money to afford to buy the things they did -- nicer houses, cars, vacations, etc. than other people. The practice is going to be "everything" -- divorces, child custody, criminal work, personal injury, writing wills, employment discrimination, etc. Do those "retail" areas of the law interest you? Do you even know anything about them? Do you want to be around clients who have extremely messy child custody situations? Clients who rape and murder other people? Writing basic wills? It's a very blue collar practice, and about as far away from administrative law in DC as possible. But if you seriously like that kind of stuff, and if you work hard and hustle, and are likeable, and fit in with the community -- you might make a lot of money, especially with the lower cost of living. But is it worth it to give up a stable and rewarding job for that chance? That's the risk you need to assess.

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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by Nearly A Moose » Mon Apr 23, 2018 12:43 pm

Does your agency do details? Can you get detailed to a rural town for 6 months to test it out? Perhaps a US Attorney office (they have civil divisions in addition to criminal if you’re a civil litigator). I would have to imagine that working as an AUSA in a smaller town would probably be a pretty sweet gig. The pay gap between private and public would probably be smaller, and you’d still be doing some of the higher end government work (probably not exactly what you’re doing now, but probably closer than wills and contracts).

PS - there are places where you can bike, run, or walk to work in DC, but they’re expensive or have trade offs. I suspect that’s not a surprise to you.
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by sailfish2 » Mon Apr 23, 2018 1:22 pm

Would you consider remaining in government, either with the feds or a state or local agency? Once you are in the federal system, I understand that you will have some benefit as previous federal employment confers a hiring preference (based on my experience). AUSA would be a solid gig, depending on your area of practice interest.

If you're really looking for a manageable schedule and reduced stress with billables, etc., I would question whether hanging a shingle as a one-lawyer show is going to take a LOT of hours both working and managing all the daily administrative tasks, billing and collectibles, etc. Joining a small law firm and making your way there would probably be a lot more balanced, and you would benefit from the connections that joining an existing firm would provide.

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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by 22twain » Mon Apr 23, 2018 3:48 pm

warner25 wrote:
Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:38 am
In small towns you might have a historic center with a few blocks of old buildings close together and a sidewalk, but it will probably be hollowed out by the strip malls and big-box store plazas along the highway on the outskirts of town. Expect to spend a lot of time driving at high speed on roads with no shoulder.
Conditions vary from one town to another, and depend on the neighborhood where you live.

I live about a mile from the center of a town with about 10K population, near the edge of the traditional street grid. For 30+ years I worked at a small college here. My daily commute was a 15-minute walk along quiet residential streets. (I still walk that way regularly for exercise.) About half the route has no sidewalks, but that's OK because traffic is minimal on these streets. About 15 minutes past the college on foot is a commercial area with a supermarket, discount stores, some restaurants, a barber shop, YMCA, a couple of banks, etc. Or I can drive there in about 10 minutes.

The center of town (city hall, police station, post office, a couple more banks, legal offices, Edward Jones (yuck), some restaurants, drugstore, etc.) is about a 25-minute walk along similar streets, or a 5-minute drive along one of the main roads into town. I can do most (not all) of my usual errands during my regular walk.

While I was teaching, it was common for me to walk to either the commercial area or downtown to do errands at lunchtime.

If we lived further out, in the unincorporated area surrounding the town, walking would not be as practical.

My wife prefers to do her grocery shopping in the next town over, about a 15-minute drive along a not-terribly-busy 4-line highway, because the supermarkets are cheaper there. The main commercial area at the edge of that town also has some big-box stores (Wal-Mart etc.). Along the way is the county hospital, with a cluster of medical offices, including our primary doctor's group practice.
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warner25
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by warner25 » Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:01 pm

22twain wrote:
Mon Apr 23, 2018 3:48 pm
... small college here...
I've seen many people say, and I believe it's true, that small college towns are a real sweet-spot as things are shaped around students who don't have cars. Colleges also provide more cultural opportunities and more stable economic engines than what's found in many other small towns. The hard part might be finding a home that's near enough to campus to benefit while not having a bunch of frat boys for neighbors.

Small colleges probably have their own lawyers too, right?

peseta
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by peseta » Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:14 pm

Best of both worlds for you, if you have an interest in being a prosecutor, is an Assistant U.S. Attorney position in a small- to medium-sized district. Do note that the hiring process for these jobs is competitive. One way to game that (a bit) is to target areas that don't have cachet -- think Southern District of Iowa, say, not District of Oregon. The smaller offices in hipster areas . . . you'd be shocked at how many applications they get, or so I hear.

Other options are civil positions in federal agencies -- not just in U.S. Attorney offices, but in places like DEA, federal prisons, U.S. Trustee and the like.

Good luck!

peseta

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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by Glockenspiel » Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:32 pm

warner25 wrote:
Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:01 pm
22twain wrote:
Mon Apr 23, 2018 3:48 pm
... small college here...
I've seen many people say, and I believe it's true, that small college towns are a real sweet-spot as things are shaped around students who don't have cars. Colleges also provide more cultural opportunities and more stable economic engines than what's found in many other small towns. The hard part might be finding a home that's near enough to campus to benefit while not having a bunch of frat boys for neighbors.

Small colleges probably have their own lawyers too, right?
In my area I also find this to be true. Much larger variety in the economy (not everyone works in agriculture), a more educated population, more walkable downtowns, etc.

blinx77
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by blinx77 » Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:39 pm

I read those articles too and what came to my mind: Virtue Signaling.

If you are ideologically committed to living in a small town, great, but I would not walk away from a good career before you are financially independent to do so.

Can you make a good living with a good quality of life by moving to, say, Columbus, Ohio instead of Washington, DC. Sure! But moving to a small town of 3,000 people without being hired by some major employer? Career suicide, I would think.

We live in a knowledge economy, where people make money based on specialized skills and networks. The best place to build those is in big cities where knowledge is being shared. Once you build those skills and networks, people from all over will come and find YOU. So even if you wanted to get out of dodge, I'd take the opposite tack, and build a specialty practice with a Washington, DC base and then see if you can port that full time remotely to your dream destination. You'll probably find you want to be 2-3 hours from a major city though for meetings, conferences, etc. which in the DC area might put you barely outside of the sprawl (think, Charlottesville with meetings back in DC on a regular basis).

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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by bottlecap » Mon Apr 23, 2018 8:57 pm

jminv wrote:
Mon Apr 23, 2018 12:11 am
markesquire wrote:
Sun Apr 22, 2018 9:02 pm

The ABA and state bar journals keep talking about a rural "lawyer shortage." They say that small towns have very few lawyers, and that the lawyers that do exist are within 5 years of retirement. The implication is that there is abundant work; that all you have to do is show up and write your paycheck. But there's not much talk about demand (whether population is declining with lawyers, or whether those with legal needs can afford to pay).
This is very unlikely to be true. There are still a lot of lawyers and a general legal fee compression trend.
This was my thought. There are enough lawyers in big towns that have a hard time making enough money to cover their school loans. If clients and $100 bills were lying all over the place in small towns, there would be struggling city lawyers moving there in droves.

You have a federal job with little stress. You would be moving to a small town to eat what you kill. Most of what you would kill would be small game. That sounds like a whole lotta stress that would likely undo any health benefits of biking to work...

Small town life can be great, so I don't want to discourage you. And the practice likely wouldn't entail big firm stress. But my guess is finding clients that could pay enough to make it comparable to your life now would entail some unwanted stress and some at least moderately hard work.

JT

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Watty
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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by Watty » Mon Apr 23, 2018 9:58 pm

I am not a lawyer but a couple of comments;

1) In a rural area many people are used to driving an hour or more when they they need to shop or need some special service. In a small town people may have the option of driving into a nearby small city when they need a lawyer.

2) It would be a mistake to think that there is not a lot of money in rural areas. In most of the country it doesn't take a very big farm to be a multi million dollar operation. A moderately successful lawyer may not be anywhere near the richest person in the county so don't expect to be the proverbial "big fish in a small pond". There is a lot of rural poverty but that is not the whole story.

3) In some rural areas drugs and crime are a bigger problem than you might assume so don't expect nirvana.

4) Don't underestimate the importance of having good schools if you have kids.

5) Getting more than basic medical care in a rural area can also be a problem and the local emergency room might not be where you would want to be in a real emergency. I have known people that have tried retiring near a small town and even something like needing to see an orthopedic doctor for a routine procedure becomes a production when you have to travel several hours one way to the nearest city multiple times.

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Re: Lawyers: Career Advice (Urban to Rural?)

Post by Glockenspiel » Mon Apr 23, 2018 10:30 pm

Watty wrote:
Mon Apr 23, 2018 9:58 pm
2) It would be a mistake to think that there is not a lot of money in rural areas. In most of the country it doesn't take a very big farm to be a multi million dollar operation.
In my hometown, the luxury vehicles are $70,000 pickup trucks with every available option instead of Mercedes, Lexus, BMW, etc. You won’t be able to tell which farmer is the multi-millionaire by the clothes that they wear.

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