When Jeff Mason arrived in Goodland, Kan., 29 years ago, he was the 17th lawyer in town.
“We were stepping on top of each other,” Mason said, laughing.
But over the years, some lawyers moved away from the western Kansas town and others died. Today, just seven lawyers practice in Goodland, population 4,489.
Like many small towns across the Midwest, where some people drive 100 miles to sit down with an attorney, Goodland couldn’t get newly minted lawyers to even sniff at jobs there.
“Everybody wanted to go to the big firm in the big city,” Mason said.
But those city jobs are increasingly hard to come by. The National Association for Law Placement reports the number of jobs at large firms in the nation’s 20 biggest cities dropped to 4,851 in 2010, almost a 27 percent decline from 2009.
Many new lawyers are finding themselves out of work or underemployed and saddled with student loan debt that averages more than $100,000. As of February, the employment rate for 2011 law-school graduates was 86 percent, the lowest level since 1994.
Suddenly, those small-town jobs look more appealing. And more law schools are helping their graduates see that light.
“We are the state’s law school, and we think we have an obligation to supply attorneys not just to the big urban and suburban areas but also to the rural areas,” said Arturo Thompson, assistant dean for career services at the University of Kansas Law School.
Kansas and Washburn University law schools, with the Kansas Bar Association, are launching two programs aimed at getting law students interested in rural practice.
One, the rural and solo program, was set up to show students that a lawyer practicing in a rural area must master the same kinds of business management skills needed to establish a solo practice anywhere.
Another program arranges unpaid internships that match students with rural lawyers and judges. Students get a feel for working in small towns, and the lawyers get to meet potential hires. The internships also save money and time for small-town state judges who can’t pay legal assistants because of tight budgets.
Lane Frymire, who grew up a few miles from Dallas, graduated from Washburn’s law school in 2010 and for nearly two years has been practicing at a firm in Liberal, Kan. Since the market for attorneys was flooded, he decided to get a job in a smaller town, where there wasn’t as much competition.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
He said he and other lawyers at small-town firms are not worried that big-city law school graduates will begin flocking to small towns and gobbling up all the jobs. It takes a person with certain expectations to enjoy country living.
“Small-town living is not glamorous, but it has its advantages,” Frymire said. “My house is four blocks from my office, and I see my clients throughout town on a regular basis.”
Jeremiah Platt, a 2006 Washburn graduate, originally wanted to take his degree to Denver to start his practice. He’d grown up in small towns across Kansas and wanted to go to the big city.
But the job he reluctantly took was in Manhattan, Kan. Turns out, Platt said, “I wouldn’t trade it.”
Today he’s partner in a two-person firm and among the 10 criminal defense attorneys in town. He never has to advertise; word of a good defense attorney travels over fences and across church pews, from one neighbor to another.
This summer, Platt’s firm hired a third attorney - a recent graduate who’s yet to take the Kansas bar exam.
In the career development center at the University of Missouri Law School, no official programs steer students toward small towns. But students there and at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, working with the Missouri Bar, can go to networking sessions and conferences involving lawyers in solo practice or working in small-town firms.
Grant Shostak, director of Missouri’s law career development center, said these sessions present opportunities for students to learn about living and working in a rural community, and, down the road, to land a position at a small-town firm.
The news that small towns have jobs is catching on with graduates.
In Fulton, Mo., a town of 12,000, Chris Wilson is Callaway County prosecutor. Wilson said that a few years ago when his office advertised openings for assistant prosecutor positions, it got three to five applications. Last year, a job opening brought in 60 applications. This year, about 70 people have applied for an opening.
“In interviewing applicants who are right out of law school, a lot of them are telling me they are having a difficult time finding jobs,” Wilson said. “They had to expand their boundaries even though home might be Kansas City or St. Louis. And we are not just seeing applicants from central Missouri, either. We’ve had applicants from as far away as New York and Florida.”
But preparing to become a small-town lawyer requires a little more training than the average graduate might need.
Shawn Leisinger, director of the Centers for Excellence at the Washburn School of Law, said that law students looking to work in rural areas need to be a bit more versed in various types of law than other graduates. Because lawyers are scarce, those practicing in those rural areas may be called on for anything, including settling an estate and criminal defense.