I recently made the decision to move my practice to southwest Colorado, to a rural town named Pagosa Springs. A couple of older attorneys had recently become unable to practice in the town and the one remaining solo practitioner here, who is in his late 70s, had been talking me into moving for about a year. I was skeptical, even after reading American Bar Association articles on the topic, that I would be able to make a living in such a small area. The town has around 1,500 people, and the county population is listed as 12,013. My skepticism could not have been more misplaced; I have done more business in three weeks than I had done the last six months in Denver.
However, there are some challenges to practicing in an area like Archuleta County that I find very interesting and difficult, and I’ve come to believe that the classic Rural Lawyer is facing imminent extinction. Aside from the fact that people in my generation generally do not want to live in a town of 1,500 people that lacks some very basic services, the legal culture here is diametrically opposite from that in larger areas on the Front Range. The following are some basic things I have learned this month in my new location that serve to illustrate why very few of us are moving to the country.
Be ready to take any case at any time.
This sounds very dangerous to the young lawyer who does not have much experience, but it is essential for an area like Pagosa.
In law school, I remember having theoretical discussions with my fantastic ethics professor Eli Wald about people having access to the court system and access to legal services. To someone entering the legal culture without any background, I found this humorous because of all the tired old jokes about there being too many lawyers in our society. In Archuleta County, however, there is a legitimate need for access to the court system. Many times, a potential client comes in and has a conflict with the other private practice lawyer in town; if I don’t take their case, they will have to drive more than 60 miles to even get a consultation with someone else.
The end result is that to practice in an area like Pagosa Springs, you have to be confident as a young lawyer. The basic information you need is available through CLEs, online research, and hard work. The bar association listservs and updates are also an invaluable source of information. The key is simply to commit, educate yourself, and realize that there are going to be stumbling blocks along the way. This is very difficult for someone just out of school, but it is manageable and is an essential element of rural practice. Law school, however, does not even come close to giving a student the confidence to realize that they can provide competent representation in most cases without a partner telling them what to do and how to do it.
Justice is a collaborative process.
Even more so than along the Front Range, being civil and working with opposing counsel is an indispensable element of rural practice. We simply do not have resources here to handle cases the way they would be handled in Denver. We have one fantastic county judge, who somehow maintains a timely docket, and a district court judge is here three to four days per week. Those judges have very busy dockets, but do not have a traditional compliment of law clerks in addition to their normal staff. Our judges also do not have dedicated dockets and handle every type of matter that comes before a state or county court. Additionally, expert witnesses have to be brought in from distant locations, usually Santa Fe or Denver. For all these reasons it serves everyone well to reach a fair settlement in cases outside the courtroom, which is something that law schools simply do not teach the younger generation of lawyers.
Work comes in ebbs and flows.
This is a more global truth than my previous points, but it is definitely accentuated here. The other solo practitioner in town told me to make sure I am in the office whenever it rains, because the ranchers from the surrounding wilderness all come into town to talk about their legal problems. I cannot attest to the truth of this statement because it is definitely not going to rain anytime soon, but it is a good example of the unique flow of country business.
This is again something that scares away younger lawyers. There is definitely enough work in the rural areas to make a living, but some weeks are extremely slow. In contrast, some turn into 60-hour weeks at the drop of a hat. It’s hard to make social or travel plans because of this, but the reward I get from the work is well worth it. For many of my peers, however, this uncertainty and difficulty in scheduling things is a very hard barrier to cross.
Will the classic Rural Lawyer survive?
The challenges of rural practice are very foreign issues for someone who just graduated law school, which will make the future of rural lawyering very difficult. Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico need legal services, but it is going to take an infusion of a group of very gutsy young lawyers to provide those services in such a rugged and remote area.
What do those of you with more experience think about the issue? Is the South Dakota model a viable way for Colorado to approach the lack of lawyers in the rural areas? If we address student debt loads, is there a greater chance that younger lawyers will move to a place like Pagosa? Please leave your comments!
Photo by anyjazz65.