Big need in small towns
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Rural and small-town residents are quickly losing access to legal services as aging attorneys retire and close their small practices, leaving a void that isn’t filled by younger lawyers.
Hoping to stem what could soon become a crisis, the University of Iowa College of Law is working with the Iowa State Bar Association to start a new program that encourages law students to practice in rural areas. The rural summer clerkship program provides opportunities for law students to work at rural or small-town practices during their summers in law school.
“The idea is to introduce them to small-town legal work and small-town culture, to see if it fits,” says Philip Garland, a lawyer in Garner who chairs the ISBA’s Rural Practice Committee. “We need to start bringing more lawyers to small-town Iowa and stop the exodus.”
He expects the program—which also includes law schools at Drake University and Creighton University—will place 10-12 law students in rural or small-town practice this summer, its first year. He hopes that as many as 25 summer clerks will be placed next summer.
Garland credits UI law student Kelsey Hollingshead with getting the program off the ground by inviting him to discuss the Rural Practice Committee’s efforts at the UI law school earlier this year. About 15 people showed up for that meeting and expressed an interest in summer clerking, though not all were placed for this summer.
“I’ve always been interested in working in a small town,” said Hollingshead, a native of Eagle Grove, Iowa. “I like the sense of community, and you can make more of a difference in a small town.”
Hollingshead, who will start her third year at the law school this fall, will work this summer at a small firm in Britt, Iowa (population 2,000) after spending last summer as a clerk at a firm in Eagle Grove (pop. 3,300). She said most law students’ career goals are oriented toward larger cities, often at big law firms or corporations.
“People who aren’t from small towns don’t even see small-town practice as an option,” Hollingshead says.
Many also don’t want to have to work as managers of their own firms, which is a must in most small practices, as opposed to large firms, where attorneys focus solely on the law.
“You have to be chief cook and bottle-washer, and handle every legal matter from A to Z—alimony to zoning,” says Garland.
The salaries in small towns are also nowhere near what talented attorneys can make at larger firms, which Garland concedes is especially important for young lawyers who have student debt to pay off.
As a result, rural America is facing a growing crisis because there are not enough attorneys to provide necessary legal services for the people who live there. Eagle Grove, for instance, has only three attorneys working in two firms. Britt has only three small firms. That dearth of lawyers forces residents to drive to other towns for such basic legal services as selling a house, drafting a contract or probating a will. Hollingshead says that since many rural residents are elderly, traveling long distances to work with far-off attorneys is even more inconvenient.
Garland also points out that attorneys are a vital part of a small town’s civic life, volunteering on local boards and providing hundreds of hours of pro bono legal services to town governments and nonprofit organizations.
But Liz Smith, another soon-to-be 3L at UI, says small town practice is “not a consolation prize.”
“You help people who need help, and work in an environment where people support each other,” says Smith, who is clerking this summer at a small firm in Cedar Rapids through the ISBA program.
In the end, though, practical considerations may be the best thing to bring more lawyers to rural America. The legal profession was hit hard by the 2008 recession, as dozens of firms have dissolved in recent years and thousands of attorneys have lost their jobs. Many analysts believe the changes are permanent and the big law firms will never hire as many attorneys as they had in the past.
“Once people realize you can get jobs in rural Iowa more easily than you can in Chicago, maybe more students will be interested,” says Hollingshead.