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How to Become a Small-Town Lawyer: Be a Small Town, Rural Lawyer

published January 31, 2018

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Summary: Seriously, can there be anything more romantic than the big-city lawyer opting out of his or her big-city law firm to downscale their practice in a small firm within a smaller city, or better yet, a small town? No.
How to Become a Small-Town Lawyer: Be a Small Town, Rural Lawyer
  • Lawyers who are, and some who are not from a small town have found small-town practice quite satisfying.
  • You know everyone in a small town, which is a big plus.
  • Another plus is knowing and understanding those who live in the small town.
  • The biggest plus with small-town practice is the small town’s legal firm can be less stressful.
Seriously, can there be anything more romantic than the big-city lawyer opting out of his or her big-city law firm to downscale their practice in a small firm within a smaller city, or better yet, a small town?
At least not in law.
Practicing law in a small town can have more benefits than we realize. For one, life is intimate and can be slower as opposed to the supercharged existence that pervades big-city lawyering. People are more laid back, less confrontational, know you by your first name, and not by the affluence of your area or zip code.
Sure, in small towns, your practice is less likely to get you 50-yard line seats at the Raiders’ game from some overblown client who you’ve helped dodge several six-figure tax evasion charges. What small- town practice instead offers is a more user friendly type of law practice.
  • The hours will most probably be shorter.
  • And the pressures from senior partners nowhere near as hardcore.
  • Not, at least, as in the pressures of head-in-vise big-city prestigious law practices.
Small-town law practice allows you a certain calm, and better yet, a strong cohesiveness with your neighbors, some of whom you will most likely represent in one case or the other, which even though you may not be paid as highly as in metropolitan law firms, the payment in community, friendship and just knowing you’ve helped out folks with little to no legal voice of their own, is more than worth its weight in gold.
  1. It is always easiest to move home.
One of the easiest lateral moves an attorney can make is to go home. If you are working in one market and want to work in your home market, a move home is an easy one to explain to firms and often a welcome one. Law firms love it when attorneys want to move back to their hometown for many reasons, which can include:
  • You have a support network there and are likely to stay. Law firms want you to stay—or at least have an incentive to stay because this means you will work harder and do things in the interest of the law firm.
  • You have received experience elsewhere and are bringing that back. Law firms love diverse experience, outside training, and new ways of looking at things. If you are moving to a small market after working in a major market, the law firm will feel proud showing the attorneys there that it is better working in a small market than a large market.
  • You will know people there who you grew up with, and they can provide you with business. The odds are that if you grew up in a smaller market, you might know people there who can also provide you business. Also, once you get settled back into the market in your hometown, your odds of getting business there increase.
  • You will likely buy a house, get married (if you are not already), have children, and do other things that will make you more likely to commit to your job and not leave. Law firms like it when people are from a given market and settle down there with all sorts of obligations. Obligations make it difficult for the attorney to leave the firm, and more likely to stick around and give their best effort.
If you are an attorney moving home, you also often do not need to just apply to law firms with existing openings. Unless you are moving into a major legal market (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., etc.), you can apply to many law firms that are likely to be the best fit for you because they know they are only going to get one shot to hire you—law firms will almost always create positions and roles for attorneys coming home if they have good qualifications. This means that you have a wider variety of places to which you can apply. It is much easier to get a position if you are moving home that it is if you are relocating to another part of the country.
  1. What moving home to practice law means to law firms
Law firms tend to favor attorneys who come home to practice. This is particularly true in small law firms within smaller cities or towns.
To some small market firms, the notion of an attorney returning home to practice is like the returning of the prodigal son (or daughter).
In short, they have wandered the vast beyond (which basically means they went away to law school at Columbia, Harvard, University of Georgia, UCLA or USC – you name it), where they learned their trade in substantive and competitive law schools, only to go on to cut their teeth on big city law cases in New York, Boston, Atlanta or Los Angeles.
The law student now evolved into a young associate has learned something in these big-city environments that might be applicable to the little law firm they grew up with on Main Street, USA.
Another allure small town law firms can have to lawyers is that the lawyer has something more to come home to than just a law practice.
The attorney will more likely than not have family in the same small town to which he or she is returning. And that family may require tending to whether it be an aged parent or an ailing sibling or some sort of other relative.
This means that for returning lawyers who put their roots down back in their hometown, there is little chance they’ll want to up and move again. The attorney is comfortable being back home. They know where to get a haircut, a tire alignment and oil change, or who’s brewing up and slicing out the freshest coffee and peach pie.
They also know people, landmarks, the corner church and its importance to the community, the elementary, middle and high school, and the tales of yore shared over beers and shots at the local bar.
Smaller law firms understand this – after all, their people are much the same with the same belief system as the returning attorney.
Small-town law firms also know that attorneys who return home from going to law school and practicing in another, potentially larger environment, is in all likelihoods, extremely rare.
Many in smaller towns realize those who do move away, never return except if it was for a seasonal holiday, a family reunion, or to bury a parent or grandparent. To that end, it is extremely infrequent that a son or daughter would want to move both their business and their lives back to the small town they left.

The benefits of a lawyer moving back home to practice.
In smaller communities and markets, people tend to know each other. In fact, this shared intimacy of many over the one is often a direct reason why a person leaves their small town to begin with.
But when a person returns, particularly to bestow (not gloat of) their personal achievements away from home, shows a strong amount of care and consideration for that which they initially left.
The returning attorney has deep-seeded affection and concern for the atmospherics that surrounded their upbringing. They consider the positives and not the negatives of a small city. And more often than not, with any given legal case this attorney is given, the lawyer is more than likely accepted in the town as one of its own.
Clients feel comfortable with this lawyer because this lawyer is one of them. He understands Neighbor A’s grievances about his own family, or Neighbor B’s issue with Neighbor C, concerning land rights issues.
Or perhaps oil and/or natural gas exists within the underground bounds of a small town. In this scenario, the town could actually be quite wealthy, and in that scenario, need a lawyer who can think like the suited-up, oil executive whose plan to buy up swatches of the town.
In short, the lawyer who returns cares. He or she is concerned for their town’s wherewithal, and seeks the best way to represent the folks with whom they’ve grown up.
  1. The pay isn’t going to be as good as in the big city.
Okay, we understand Big Law in big city settings translates into big paychecks. But believe it or not, monetary compensation isn’t the be all/end all of the world, especially if one considers the stress and strain of practicing in large markets. For example, practicing law in large prestigious firms which reside in large prestigious cities, can result in:
  • Exorbitant pressures, both business and health wise.
  • A culture of winner-take-all, which can leave a bad taste in any lawyer’s mouth if they have a human-like conscious – or any conscious for that matter.
  • A need to kiss major ass when it comes to partners and big-time clients.
  • A need to be an ass when it comes to dealing with equals and lesser in one’s practice.
Oh yeah, but of course you get paid for your troubles in these scenarios. At least it’s a hell of a lot more than you would make in the Podunk town you wandered out of to pursue a legal career (even if that Podunk town is the size of Cincinnati, Denver or St. Louis).
But at day’s end, to wake up and know that at one time in your life, you left the idyllic to become the ideal legal money-grab asshole can put a strong strain of bitterness in your morning joe.
At that point, the money means nothing; or it shouldn’t if you’re more inclined to return home where you know the world is safe, sound, and less likely to be dog-eat-dog.
  1. Or maybe the money is better…
Of course, money may never be an object again if the small town a big-town lawyer returns to sits on 10 million barrels of crude oil, or has enough natural gas tracts to set each and every townsperson up for life.
Seriously, stranger things have happened, particularly in the realm of environmental law, eminent domain, and crafty oil companies that are caught drilling in territories that don’t belong to them.
Money? Hell, as a small town lawyer who puts the heavy fist of justice down on shifty petroleum people, money will be the last thing on yours or anyone else’s mind who are out on Main Street for their daily stroll, when living among the fruits of a strong class-action legal settlement against an unfairly aggressive oil and natural gas company.
  1. What an expert has to say about small-town law practice (whether you’re from that same small town or not).
Concord Law School is a small institution nestled in the cozy confines of West Los Angeles. While Concord may be an unaccredited law school in the eyes of the California State Bar, the school’s curriculum as well as its professors and students still receive enough respect to be granted accreditation only if the pedagogy pass California's First-year Law Students' Examination (FYLSE), affectionately known as Cali’s "Baby Bar."
Within the walls of Concord is Richard L. Hermann, who teaches legal career management, a rarified subject that only a few U.S. law schools touch upon. Burned out on big-city practice, Hermann decided to investigate the practice of law in a small town. That investigation and subsequent research into small- town law practice led Hermann to believe small towns can be viable alternatives to a lawyer’s big-city practice.
As Hermann recounts upon his visits to small towns where he believed small town lawyers would be equally, if not more disenchanted with law practice as those in large firms working in big cities, to his surprise, the small town lawyers were much more satisfied with their careers than those who practiced law in the big cities.
“In my case,” Hermann states. “I searched for an unhappy small-town lawyer, the archetype that dominated my primarily big-city legal career counseling practice. I kept running into highly contented attorneys, satisfied with their lives and enjoying their practices, appreciative of the opportunity to live in a moderately paced milieu and serve clients that, for the most part, they genuinely liked. The attractiveness of small-town law practice today is reflective of larger demographic and attitudinal changes affecting American society in general.”
Hermann goes on to explain that those living in small-town America are still very much underserved by the legal community. Moreover, housing is affordable, commuting to and from work is a non-issue, and schools have fewer problems than their urban counterparts, albeit drugs, sex, violence, and concerns about educational quality have also made their way into the youth population in small towns.
Hmmm… the more things don’t change, the more different they are, particularly to city dwellers.
  1. Yes, but what if I’m not from a small town, yet flirt with the idea of small-town legal practice?

If you’re not from a small town, yet fantasize over the idea of practicing in a small town, by all means pack up the family and head for where the horns honk less and the curse words seek to enhance hot days and mean dogs, not high rents or a lack of mall parking lot spaces.
In other words don’t hesitate if you feel the tug of practicing small-town law in a small-town setting. Chances are you’ll be more excepted than anything a less-than-half-true Hollywood movie can depict about city folks converting to country folk much to the ire of the country folk who already live there…in the country.
For the fact is this: The small town may have all you need in your world. As an attorney, and of course depending upon your practice area, you might very well have your hands full in your chosen smaller venue.
  • As was stated, you could find yourself practicing something as fascinating, not to mention increasingly high paying, as environmental law. (Remember those 10 million barrels Big Oil wants to suck out from under a town – think of your percentage of the settlement on that little class action suit).
  • Or your practice can be as (seemingly) docile as family law; a practice area that is always entertaining in the wake of family feuds.
  • And there’s also real estate law, which some have said can be a real boom in future legal practices, particularly as cities expand and/or people seek refuge away from expanding cities.
Whatever the case, a big city lawyer is more apt to be welcomed into small enclaves than they may think. After all, the question truly needs to be asked of these small towns as to how small they really are, what with the internet, modern infrastructure, and four-wheel drive F150 Uber crew cabs equipped to not just haul you, but your small livestock should you decide to have yourself your own farm.
  1. All joking aside…
Sure, while somewhere in the world of Big Law, a couple of well-heeled legal gents adorned in Brooks Brothers attire and sipping Jameson neat are sharing guffaws regarding small-town law practices, the truth is there’s really nothing funny about such endeavors.
Small towns are disappearing, and if they are not, the small town spirit is further splintering each day the folks with their tradition, their faith, hope, closeness and love is trampled upon by actions that put their existence in peril. It is bleak, yes, but nonetheless true. We never want to get to the point where we say some time in our collective future as a country, “Main Street, USA? What’s a Main Street, USA?”
This is why the small towns hold as much value as New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. In all honesty, they may hold more value simply from a philosophical and traditional approach. Small towns are what built us. And now, as lawyers, they can use our help more so now than ever in history. Regardless of the socio-economic differences between the big-time city lawyer and small-town life, one has an existence that needs standing up for, and the other has the ability and responsibility to legally defend that existence and preserve its future.
It’s what lawyers should and are supposed to do – even in small towns that they return to, or if they’ve never have been a part of, can still love as their own.
See the following articles for more information: