Agrarian Trust

A Rural Lawyer is Hard to Find

From the Washington Post by Danielle Paquette

Fourteen years ago, the veteran lawyer built his retirement home. He decorated the basement with snowmen and skis, a nod to how he’d like to spend the future.

But John Thomas, 61, can’t retire. Can’t plan lengthy trips to Colorado resorts with his wife, Nancy. Not until he finds a successor, a young lawyer to take over his law firm in this town, population 94.

The problem: Young lawyers in these endless plains are about as scarce as freshly powdered slopes. That’s why Thomas’s hopes soared in February, when he opened a letter from Alissa Doerr, a second-year student at the Nebraska College of Law. She wanted to be his clerk for the summer. She was his first applicant in 20 years.

He wondered: Could she be the one?

Rural Nebraska needs lawyers. Young, single, college-educated people keep leaving the Heartland, enticed elsewhere by more money or exposed brick lofts or mimosa-drenched brunches. The young have long fled small towns for big city lights, but the trend has been worse in recent years, aggravated by recession and a historic concentration of resources in urban areas. Nearly 60 percent of America’s rural counties lost residents last year. That’s up from 50 percent in 2009 and 40 percent in the late ’90s, according to Census data.

Knox County, where Thomas has worked nearly four decades, is a window into this exodus: There were 19,100 residents in 1930, 11,700 in 1970 and today, 8,560. The county has 12 attorneys. Eight are older than 60,  also looking to retire.

Thomas independently juggles 300 far-flung clients, some of whom drive two hours to see him. He’s also the Knox County attorney, navigating a constant flow of criminal cases at the courthouse next door.

He’s getting tired.

State officials are trying to help him. The Nebraska Bar Association recently asked Thomas to help shape the state’s Rural Practice Loan Repayment Assistance Program. Effective next year, law graduates who work in counties with populations of less than 15,000 can start receiving up to $42,000 in student debt relief. (The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy is still drafting the guidelines with plans to announce them in October).

Recipients must stay 10 years to earn the full amount, forsaking city life, higher salaries — and, potentially, the professional network to move on and up.

The money is a good draw. But, Thomas realizes, it needs an accompanying sales pitch.


Alissa Doerr grew up on a Knox County farm.

She prefers the country, the logical cycle of calves and corn. She carries pepper spray in Lincoln. And don’t ask about her three-month agriculture lobbying internship last year in the District. She’d rather hear the crickets at night than her neighbor’s Netflix marathon.

Her ambition has country grit. She dreams of someday running her own practice. All summer, Thomas has been showing her reasons to pick his.

If Doerr wanted to buy Thomas’s firm, he’d cut her a good deal and rest easy knowing his clients, his neighbors, were in her hands. He doesn’t want to apply too much pressure, though. Doerr’s options are wide open. And her boyfriend of two years lives 120 miles away.

“It will take me ages to up wrap up every case myself,” Thomas says. “Country living isn’t as simple as you’d think.”

Nebraska policymakers have long wondered how to attract — and retain — young lawyers. Until recently, tuition debt relief was mostly available for recent graduates who decided to work for nonprofits and government agencies.

That wasn’t enough to stay competitive with cities like Omaha, where more than 2,000 attorneys work. Nebraska’s biggest city has dodgeball leagues, Tinder options, yoga classes. Center’s only bar closes on Mondays.

Meeting new people here is much harder, Doerr admits. She feels lucky to have already built a satisfying, mutually supportive relationship. Her brother, who will take over the family farm, went to community college in Norfolk, the nearest city, with two goals: Earn a degree — and find a wife.

Exacerbated by these forces, the rural lawyer shortage persists, delaying justice for people with already limited resources. Country attorneys retire, unreplaced. Twelve Nebraska counties today have no lawyers.

Craig Schroeder, senior associate of youth engagement at the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, blames a communication breakdown.

“Young people often don’t know about the opportunities available to them in small towns,” he says. “Great opportunities — the chance to make a real difference — are lost this way.”

Rural employers don’t advertise jobs outside town lines. New graduates assume no one’s hiring. Businesses dry up and fulfill the prophecies of both.

Donna Taylor, a county judge who frequently decides Thomas’s cases, says her territory needs extra legal help. In recent years, she’s watched early-career lawyers pack up and leave. The veterans, overwhelmed with work and a sense of community duty, feel stuck.

“There’s such good potential for new lawyers to move up here,” she says. “A lot of time when new graduates are hired by big firms, they do one thing — learn one thing — and are expected to bill a lot of hours. In a small town, they get to do everything.”

The Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln is trying to amplify rural exposure through an annual bus tour. Soon-to-be-graduates can coast through different counties on spring break, meet local attorneys and shake hands with business leaders.

Center isn’t a stop yet, but Thomas is trying.

It’s an hour from a Wal-Mart or Starbucks or stoplight.

Highway 84 in northeastern Nebraska becomes Main Street for five blocks in Center.

Notice the unpaved tributary streets, the cottages marked by last names, the cows grazing in backyards, the community swing-set painted like an American flag. Twenty-six families live here.

Cruise past a post office, a town hall, an auto shop, a church, a bank, the Knox County Courthouse and Thomas’s law firm.

Climb the concrete steps and step into his gray-brick building, built in 1931. Greet his secretary, Emily, who has worked here three decades. Scan hundreds of legal books, largely untouched since Thomas bought a computer. Read the gold plaque: FIRST CLASS LAWYER.

Thomas, a Creighton law graduate, adopted this private practice in 1978 from another lawyer, who inherited it in 1969. He was promised steady work from two towns, two schools and two banks — about $2,000 worth of monthly billable hours.

“That’s just how it works here,” he says on an August afternoon, sitting at his antique conference table. “You learn from someone, they retire, and you take over their practice. People get to know and trust you. I’m representing the grandkids of former clients, now.”

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