It’s pretty clear that traditional large-firm jobs in big cities are still hard to come by. Even those cushy government jobs sometimes offered as a Biglaw equivalent are, as of last week, slightly less appealing. Well, fear not; the small law firm renaissance is here!
A recent article in Lawyers Weekly suggests that small towns are losing their lawyers faster than they’re being replaced. The article discusses small-town Canada, but based on this report from the WSJ Law Blog (which I previously mentioned here), as well as what I’ve heard from my sources, this observation is also true in the States.
The author seems hopeful that we are on the verge of a “renaissance in small-town lawyering,” and in support he offers a revised look at six of the traditional reasons why graduates and young lawyers often avoid smaller communities. Let’s see if he’s right…
The article is by Jordan Furlong, a partner with the Edge International consulting firm, a senior consultant with Stem Legal, and author of the legal blog Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink. Furlong writes:
1. There’s not enough work out there. To the contrary: demand for legal services is steady, and with the coming retirement of thousands of older practitioners, supply is going to dry up. Opportunities will abound for lawyers willing to commit to these communities.
I’m not sure that “opportunities will abound,” but there will be opportunities. But even though we have more law graduates than ever before, those that miss the Biglaw train often turn to some alternative career (like Social Media Guru) instead of seeking work in a small town. The key phrase Furlong uses is “willing to commit.” Most graduates are not committed to the law; they’re committed to the money.
2. I can’t afford the lower rates. This is a common refrain among new law grads burdened with heavy debts. But how much do these lawyers pay to live and work in the big cities where the large firms are based? Do the cost-of-living math and the big-city salary might look less attractive.
This is a non-issue for me. I have sizable debt from law school and make less than 99% of practicing lawyers. I still eat, pay my loans, and even enjoy a microbrew here and there. But I have a pretty low standard of living. Again, this is about graduates’ earnings expectations, and the lower rates (read: smaller salaries) will continue to be a problem.
3. I’d feel isolated in a small town. Long-distance communication has never been easier and cheaper, and between LinkedIn, Facebook and other online services, a lawyer is only as alone as he or she wants to be.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like face-to-face interactions. You’re going to be somewhat isolated in a smaller town; there’s no way around that. Skype only does so much.
4. I’d miss out on the challenging legal work. That’s arguable. But would you also miss the incivility and competition? Every report of law in smaller towns emphasizes the collegiality, respect and community spirit that lawyers encounter. And let’s not even talk about the commute.
Define “challenging legal work.” In my mind, he’s absolutely right; there’s plenty of challenging work in small towns. The problem is that many see that phrase and think “high-dollar corporate mergers.” Being a small town lawyers can be every bit as challenging as a Biglaw gig.
5. I want exposure to a variety of practice… small-town lawyers often do wills in the morning, close a house sale over lunch and defend a driving under the influence case in the afternoon.
Do you really want a variety of practice? Go open an office across from the courthouse somewhere in Small Town, U.S.A., and see what comes in the door.
6. I want the big-firm experience. It’s hard to get around this if that’s what the lawyer wants. But “experience” in larger firms often has to wait several years before meaningful client contact or courtroom appearances become available. In smaller communities, you hit the ground running from your first day on the job.
It’s not the experience; it’s the Biglaw training and name that young lawyers want. Yes, you get hands-on experience much earlier in your career at a small firm; but if that job doesn’t suit you, it won’t exactly be a springboard to something else.
Biglaw is about money and options. It pays for your education, enabling you to pay off your student loans, and it provides you with options after you’ve had your first mental breakdown at 27. And lawyers need options, because half of us went to law school with no real idea of whether or not we’d enjoy practicing.
Lawyers in small firms — especially those in small towns — must actually enjoy practicing law. There’s not enough of that now, and I for one hope this actually is a renaissance.
The growth potential of small-town law [The Lawyers Weekly]
Earlier: Previous coverage of small law firms