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Virtual Law

Representing Rural Clients from a Big-City Office: Think Beyond Technology

By Nika Kabiri

In rural areas across the U.S., people are experiencing a unique legal problem: Lawyers are hard to find.

Aging rural lawyers are retiring, and no one is around to replace them. This means criminal defendants are more likely to take pleas because they don’t have representation. Rural residents are more likely than urban ones to die without a will. Small-town individuals will tend to handle their own divorces, making crucial mistakes. Those who do manage to find a lawyer drive long distances — sometimes 100 miles or more — just to meet with their attorneys. And they end up paying more.

From an access to justice perspective, this is serious stuff.

In many ways, it’s easy to understand why younger lawyers choose to practice in big cities. School debt means they need to work where job prospects are better and pay can be higher. Rural jobs aren’t advertised well, so in many cases, young lawyers aren’t even aware the openings exist. But also, big-city life is alluring for young, single lawyers, and much easier in many aspects.

To help address the situation, some states offer subsidies to lawyers who live and work in rural areas. Some law schools have programs that match students to rural firms in their states. Some young lawyers are encouraged by these programs, but for many the incentive isn’t great enough to move. About 2 percent of all small law practices in the United States are in small towns and rural areas, a very low number considering that almost 20 percent of the population lives in those locales.

Urban Lawyers, Rural Clients: Tapping into a Growth Opportunity

Programs encouraging relocation can only do so much. But urban lawyers can do much more, and without even leaving their city offices. By relying on simple technology — such as videoconferencing, secure document sharing, and even text messaging — to reach and represent clients, urban lawyers can offer much-needed help in hard-to-reach locales while tapping into a growth opportunity for their businesses.

But it’s not enough to say that “technology can solve it.” Like any business, a virtual law practice needs to understand its target consumer; otherwise, marketing efforts can fall flat and money spent on tech tools can go to waste. Small-town residents may not behave like big-city ones. So here are some things urban attorneys should think about before seeking out rural clients.

1. Make sure you know what kind of “small town” you’re looking at. Robert Wuthnow, a renowned sociologist at Princeton, talks about two kinds of “small towns” in his 2013 book “Small-Town America.” The first is a relatively low-population community with all the romantic qualities we imagine small towns having, but in reality, it’s a municipal subdivision of a large metro area. These types of towns can access the amenities of nearby large cities, and so may not experience the types of access to justice issues described above. The second type of small town, in contrast, is more autonomous, and much less connected to a large municipality. It’s in these towns that access to justice may be a dire problem. So before launching a billboard ad campaign in a nearby “small town,” do some homework on what kind of town it is. Research it online, but also take a drive there to determine how removed and independent it seems. What other lawyers are around? It might be that the areas you think need lawyers really don’t.

2. Know the local culture. In the early 1990s, Robert Ellickson, now a professor emeritus at Yale Law School, wrote the seminal book “Order Without Law,” in which he demonstrated how farmers and ranchers in rural Shasta County, California, relied on non-legal solutions (called “informal social norms”) to settle their disputes. For those rural residents, the law proved to be much less important to maintaining peace and order than people had previously assumed. Urban lawyers would benefit from understanding the role of law in the lives of rural dwellers in their area. Are these residents likely to see lawyers as viable solutions to their problems? What sorts of things might they choose to handle themselves, even if there were a bunch of lawyers around?

3. Prepare a “legal profile” of the community you’re interested in. Wuthnow points out in his book that within most small towns, some people are well-off and others are not. Those who are wealthy could have different legal needs than those who aren’t. Knowing the marriage and divorce rates in the area can provide a sense of how many people need a family lawyer, and that number might be larger or smaller than you think. Are folks in the particular locale likely to file for bankruptcy? Or contest traffic tickets? Are they likely to be immigrants? It’s important to know whether the type of law you practice is a good match for the rural area you hope to represent. The legal profile of your nearby small town might seem obvious, but you might be surprised.

Figuring Out Actual Legal Needs in Rural Locales

The above three suggestions require some digging into rural communities near you. Which is work — but the work can pay off. The need is clearly there, and the clients are waiting. What’s not clear is exactly what that need looks like.

Looking at census data can help, and also court records and crime rates listed on websites. But there really is no substitute for good old-fashioned social research. Market researchers and consumer insights experts do this kind of digging for other types of businesses, to uncover customer needs and advise on how businesses can meet those needs, and these types of experts can bring benefits to lawyers as well.

But you can also benefit from simply driving through rural areas and small towns, talking to people, getting a sense of what these communities are about. Whatever you do, don’t assume that if you build the tech solutions, they will come. The answer may be a bit more complicated than that.

Related: “Be a Small Town Lawyer” by Roy Ginsburg

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