Just as a weekend in the country provides a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, so too, Bruce Cameron’s book Becoming A Rural Lawyer, is a breath of fresh air from the heaps of impersonal and jargon-filled formulaic guides, blogs and books on starting or marketing a law practice. Though wonderfully lyrical and personal in tone, Cameron (who’s a rural lawyer himself) does not romanticize rural practice for a minute. Instead, he honestly shares the pros and cons and ups and downs while conveying an enormous amount of practical information about how to get a small town practice off the ground.
Perhaps the most important take away from Bruce’s book for me is that even as the practice of law may be changing in large firms or populated areas, many of the gimmicks and trends that may work in big towns don’t play well in rural areas. Bruce describes how his dreams of starting a virtual office — with amenities like online billing and appointment scheduling and free house calls were dashed because no one felt that sufficiently housebound to want to use the service. That included a 90-year old neighbor recently retired from farming (and being elderly would seem like an ideal virtual law candidate). Instead, Bruce discovered that most rural clients expected to see a lawyer behind a desk and further, believed that a lawyer’s office allowed for more privacy than handling a transaction in the home or workplace.
There’s another challenge to 24/7 reliance on cloud-based technologies in a rural setting as well: continuity. Though service has improved, when disruptions happen, small towns are often last on the utility’s service list. Bruce’s commentary on the limits of technology in rural practice oughtn’t be taken lightly. Bruce isn’t a fogey or luddite either — he comes from a technical background himself — so his observations about technology in rural practice carry added weight.
There are other conventions that may not work in small towns. With the focus on personal, not surprisingly, most business development in small towns is built on face to face networking and recommendations. Internet-based marketing doesn’t go far here either – at least for now. Likewise, niche practices – a trend that has always excited me – don’t necessarily work in a small towns. In communities with few lawyers, small town lawyers by necessity must be generalists. On the other hand, if there are other lawyers in the area, an attorney choosing to focus on one or two practice areas will have a better chance of success. And there are also more sophisticated practice areas in rural areas like gas leasing, agriculture, Native American issues and municipal law that are seeing a need for lawyers.
Bruce’s book isn’t limited to a description of the pros and cons for rural practice. Because Bruce started a rural practice, he also ably discusses how to do it. This part of the book certainly hits all the major points – but it is by no means is exhaustive. Nor does it need to be given the enormous amount of material online about business plans, tech choices and setting up an office. One important topic for rural practice that Bruce covers is whether to buy a rural practice and if so, how to determine what to pay. As the population of rural America ages, many lawyers may be putting practices up for sale – which in the right circumstances, can be an additional opportunity for new solos.
If you’re a new grad considering opportunities, or more importantly, a law school hoping to inform students about practice options, Rural Lawyer is worth the read.
Disclosure: Rural Lawyer was published by LawyerAvenue which also publishes my book, Solo by Choice.