Four links on the subject.
Stephanie Francis Ward, “Should Lawyers Fresh Out of Law School Start a Solo Practice? (Podcast),” in the ABA Journal
Debra Cassens Weiss, “Why New Lawyers Should Consider Rural Practice,” in the ABA Journal
Deborah L. Cohen, “So You Want to Go Solo? You Sure?” in the ABA Journal
Managing Partner, “Solo Practice – Even With SPU’s Help, It’s Still a Long Shot,” in The Legal Dollar
I delight in ABA releases because they tell us not what the ABA thinks but what it wants us to think it’s thinking. I suspect its officials are aware of the growing number of new, unemployed, and indebted attorneys, so instead of analyzing the tuition bubble and the number of law students, they’ve come up with a temporary plan until the economy recovers (the ABA has no choice but to endorse the bottleneck argument) so they can go back to not being criticized by reformers: Tell young graduates to go out and go long.
If the opportunities exist, then the argument is fair. Indeed, the cost-of-living in larger cities can mitigate the debt student loans impose. Moreover, several commenters on the ABA posts point out that rural practitioners in their counties are aging rapidly and will need replacement soon. I am however, wary. Managing Partner makes good points about experience being nonnegotiable. Several years of firm practice makes going solo much easier than any number of courses in law school or elsewhere. Also, I’m always dubious of claims that waves of retiring baby boomers will create a surge in demand. If there were any money to be made in rural America, I’d think large law firms would open branch offices there and cut a deal with some of their associates: we’ll make you partner of our rural office for three years and then we’ll bring you back as partner downtown. In the meantime, you get to take 10% of the profits out-state. Or something like that.
Importantly, while many of the commentators on the ABA’s post appear to have had successful decades-spanning careers, we also must note two things: (1) Recessions devastate small-town America as badly as anywhere, and because legal services depend highly on the economy, one shouldn’t expect any small town to suffice. (2) Law was a lot easier to break into thirty years ago than today, especially given the potential Internet marketing provides to existing firms.
Regardless of what the ABA wants us to think it’s thinking, the rural practice option works quite well for it because it turns the tables on recent grads and says, “We get the economy’s tough. Duh. But you’re the ones unwilling to make the tough choices. You think you can practice engaging corporate law in a downtown office, but in today’s America that’s just not an option. The opportunities exist; they’re not ideal, but you have the tools so do it.” Hey, it’s hard to argue against this logic beyond the general principle that small businesses, including solo law firms, fail quite often regardless of location.
However, if the ABA is serious about rural practice as a viable option, it should do more than point law grads to the interstate; it should either determine areas where demand is high, or it should help match willing lawyers with retiring solos who’ll sell them their vibrant practices. I add this requirement because law school is far riskier than recent grads believed (whether ignorant or scammed). Now they’re eager for risk-averse employment. The ABA understands the risk level of a law degree, evidenced by its “Value Proposition of Attending Law School” document. The least it could do for its most disadvantaged members is provide them with better help towards functional careers.
Actually, strike that. The least the ABA could do is acknowledge the tuition bubble.