“Little America” Beckons Young Lawyers

Baby Boomers, the largest practitioner cohort in history, are leaving the legal scene, retiring in droves. Where this is most apparent is in America’s small communities—cities, towns, and villages roughly under 25,000 population—where a disproportionate number of Boomer attorneys spent their careers…and thrived.

The Image…and the Reality

When you picture practicing law in a small community, you probably imagine the attorney equivalent of banker George Bailey and Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life. You could not be more off-base.

Small-town America is not what it used to be. The transportation and communications revolutions have spread the advantages and amenities of big cities into less populous regions. Often, these regions are underserved by the legal community (advantage #1). Moreover, housing is a­ffordable (advantage #2), commuting is a non-issue (advantage #3), and schools have far fewer problems than their urban counterparts (advantage #4).

Today’s small-town practice is rich in its diversity. In researching my book, Practicing Law in Small-Town America (American Bar Association, 2012), I discovered that small-town practice goes way beyond the stereotype of a sole practitioner who represents clients in domestic relations disputes, residential real estate closings, wills and estates, and the occasional misdemeanor. That Norman Rockwell picture paints a bygone era. The modern small-town private practitioner may:

  • fly solo;
  • work for a small firm;
  • be a partner or associate in the large urban firm’s satellite office;
  • act as corporate in-house counsel or outside counsel to a high-tech startup;
  • work in a local, state, or even federal law office;
  • teach or work in a quasi-legal capacity in a law school, university, or community college;
  • function as an assistant district attorney or public defender;
  • represent the local hospital;
  • counsel legal assistance clients;
  • run the regional dispute resolution office;
  • advise the county economic development agency;
  • serve on a special purpose district staff; or
  • or work in a variety of capacities in the court system.

Moreover, solo practice now encompasses much more than it ever did before. Its challenges include: representing individuals and local businesses in domestic and international transactions (even small retailers now sell their products to global customers via the Internet); government regulatory filings; asserting claims and benefit applications; and complex litigation and transactions.

Small-Town Attractions

What they all have in common is a work-life balance (advantage #5) that attorneys in big cities can only imagine, a degree of civility (advantage #6) that governs professional relations between adversaries who know they will frequently be on opposite sides of cases and transactions, client relations that are close and friendly (advantage #7), a cost of living that is eminently affordable (advantage #8), and recreational opportunities close at hand (advantage #9), and that only scratches the surface.

The 21 attorneys whom I interviewed for my Small-Town Practice book, while randomly selected, were—to a person—enthusiastic about their professional lives. Many emphasized close client contact (in solo practice and small firms, it is not uncommon for clients to just “drop into” the office for a chat); opportunities to supplement their incomes by serving in various capacities in court-appointed positions such as Mediator, Court Evaluator, Court Examiner, Guardian, Attorney for an Alleged Incapacitated Person, Supplemental Needs Trustee, Guardian ad Litem, Receiver, Referee, Law Guardian for Children, Counsel to the Public Administrator, Counsel to Guardian, Conservator, or Counsel to Receiver; and much easier segues into judicial positions at the city, county, town, and village levels.

Demographics, Opportunity, and Due Diligence

The number of aging small-town lawyers is growing rapidly. Many in their late 50s, 60s and 70s are retiring. One of the great advantages of small-town practice is the opportunity to take over an existing, established practice and be squired around town and introduced to community leaders, bankers, and others by the retiring attorney. While generally unheard of in the big city, this is standard operating procedure in small towns. The older sole practitioners I spoke to all expressed a desire for someone to come in and assume their practices and relationships with their same degree or commitment to superior representation and concern for their clients. Their overriding concern was for continuity. They were not seeking to sell their practices, but rather viewed it as their responsibility to ensure that the quality of representation they pride themselves on would continue.

If you decide to go the small-town route, do your due diligence first. Make sure you are relocating to an area that is not in decline and that can boast good schools, a vibrant and growing business base, local financing available for start-ups from community banks, enlightened community leadership, economic development organizations that concentrate on nurturing existing businesses instead of fishing expeditions to other states, and a collaborative approach to community needs and problem-solving.