Why Young Attorneys Fear Working in Rural Areas and Why They Shouldn’t

Young female farmer and a lawyer

When the towns of Malden and Pine City were destroyed by fire in 2020, the residents were left with nothing and are still trying to pick up the pieces.

They need help dealing with government agencies and state agencies—and I get calls daily for assistance. Most can’t afford an attorney but they still need the help. The need actually has increased with the housing crisis since some of the houses in rural areas are less than $100,000, making them affordable for people moving from larger towns, and they still have the same legal needs as they would in an urban area.

We struggle to hire and retain lawyers in rural areas for several reasons. Usually it has to do with spouses and employment opportunities. The rural areas are then left with no attorney assistance.

The newest challenge is the cultural differences between rural and urban people. We hear now from students that they don’t want to work or reside “out there with those people.” That is based on social media and cable news exaggerating the differences between the rural and urban settings.

Social media and cable news. It’s not real. Davenport is 20 minutes from Lake Roosevelt and the majority of the residents there are from urban communities. I meet with them daily in my practice and they all laugh when asked what the perception was versus reality. Most have lived here for years or are COVID refugees and will never leave.

When we do hire attorneys, they are encouraged to live here in the rural communities and become members of the bigger community by joining local service organizations, churches, or sports leagues. Rural clients want to know you are shopping local and living local. It can be a shock for young attorneys to run into their clients in a grocery store or while playing basketball, but it creates a connection deeper than a one-off meeting.

I was raised on a farm homesteaded by my great-grandparents in 1883. I attended school in Rosalia, then did my undergraduate work at Eastern Washington University and law school at the University of Idaho before starting practice in 1989.

Our office began in Davenport in the 1930s and has expanded to acquire practices in Odessa, Ritzville, St. John, Rosalia, and Colfax. I practice in the areas that surround agricultural production, transition planning, tax planning, estate planning, and probate.

For someone like myself, the strangest thing is meeting a group of law students who are fearful of practicing in rural areas because they don’t know what needs the clients have. I assure them the needs are the same but the clients might drive a tractor or combine instead of a car. They might have boots that smell of cow pasture but have real needs such as acquiring real estate, wills, and planning. The misconception is that there is something different about the people and many young students don’t feel comfortable working in an area that doesn’t have a nearby Starbucks, or other urban staples.

I often find myself perplexed by the fact that law students are worried about the political leanings of people who live here. Most rural clients are proud, independent, and conservative. They would also give you the shirt off their back if you needed it. I have a married gay couple who I have worked with for years who live here and, at first, were fearful of their neighbors with conservative views. They were shocked when, year after year, those same neighbors kept their driveway clear after snowstorms. And they are now dear friends.

Perceptions can be dangerous. I recently did a will for a young Ukrainian who was going to assist in the evacuation effort. Within days we had raised funds for him by visiting the local tavern and passing the hat for funds. Perceptions perplex me since they are not accurate and, more often, are more dangerous than the truth.