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1 Year Later, How Are Those Rural Attorney Programs Working Out?

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

It seems like a perfect fit: Only 57 percent of the Class of 2013 found full-time, long-term lawyer gigs. And in rural areas of America, there are a whole lot of people (20 percent of the population) and not a lot of lawyers (2 percent). What's more, many of those lawyers are retiring, leaving entire counties without any counsel.

This is why many states are pushing (or bribing) recent grads to go rural with their practice, and it's why the ABA announced a Legal Access Job Corps last year that would do the same.

One year later, how are those programs working out? And how are debt-laden grads surviving in the rural areas?

South Dakota's Program

This is the program that we found most intriguing last year, in large part, because it was the only one that included a stipend: $12,000 a year for five years. That may not sound like a lot, and if you have student loans, it might not be, but it should be enough to cover most of one's cost of living in cheaper parts of the country, unless that person has a family.

It is enough, at least, to allow these lawyers to survive during the first year or two of practice, when clients are scarce and everything is new and time-consuming.

So far, the program, which was budgeted for 16 participants through June 30, 2017, has one practicing attorney, two waiting for bar results, and several interested law students, reports the ABA Journal.

Other Programs

The ABA's lengthy profile on their own efforts, as well as those of state and local bar associations, is otherwise short on significant success stories. There are a few anecdotes about recent grads hanging singles in small towns, including a married couple who plan on setting up separate offices to avoid conflicts. (What? You'll probably still have to tell clients that you're married and get informed consent before you take a case against your spouse. Then again, there's no competition, so it's not like they have a choice. Hah!)

The ABA's own program has given grants to a few bar associations, which are setting up things like "speed-dating interviews" with rural lawyers and funding summer clerkships. Some of these may end up increasing the number of practicing rural attorneys down the line as well.

But none seems as successful as the South Dakota program, almost certainly because of the lack of a long-term direct payment model.

Obstacles to Overcome

Why is rural practice so unappealing to so many? We've got a few ideas. For one, if you're single, good luck dating in a town of 100. And if you're not, good luck to your job-hunting spouse. Also, starting your own firm as a recent grad is terrifying enough, but doing so as a jack-of-all-trades small-town lawyer? Doubly so.

And, of course, there are the finances. Rural life is cheaper, but rural folks also have less income to spend on legal fees. You have a smaller client base, with less money, and you're new to practice so everything takes forever to figure out (especially when you're not concentrating on a single practice area).

Tack on student loan payments, which are burdensome even on income-based plans, and you're looking at a life of barely scratching out a living while constantly being stressed about malpractice, all the while sitting at home alone with your five cats because there is no one to date.

Or, at least, that's the feared worst-case scenario.

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