Most Americans Don’t Want to Live in Rural America

…Which is why rural America is rural. Deep insight, Grasshopper, but the ABA Journal isn’t so easily persuaded, as implied in its recent feature article titled, “In rural America, there are job opportunities and a need for lawyers.”

I largely addressed this topic last year in a bluntly headlined post, “Law Grads Not Responsible for Lack of Rural Lawyers,” and its primary point still stands: If there is so much demand for (retiring) rural lawyers, why weren’t they replaced ages ago? It can’t be because of a quality specific to recent law graduates—including lack of practical training.

Unfortunately, I think the ABA Journal could’ve pursued the specific question of why lawyers won’t open practices in rural communities more analytically. For example, it accepted that there’s unmet demand for legal work in Wishek, N.D., based only on the word of its retiring sole lawyer. For a community of 1,002 people one wonders why it needs any. In fact, the Economic Census I discussed last week doesn’t have 2012 figures for states, but it does provide them for prior years. In 2007, law firm receipts per capita were $726 nationwide; in North Dakota they were only $255, an indicator that law is not in such high demand in North Dakota. As far as “offices of lawyers” goes, North Dakota, it seems, had a flat number of establishments from 1997 to 2007.

Industry Snapshot ND 1 Industry Snapshot ND 2

(Note that the number of law offices in McIntosh County, N.D., in 2011 is unavailable, but the neighboring counties appear very sparsely lawyered as well.)

The mean average population per law office establishment in North Dakota seven years ago was one firm per 1,893 persons—well above Wishek’s size—and I suspect the median firm is in a larger community. Not that I put a lot of stock in lawyer- or law-firm-per-capita estimates, but if there’s anything the LSTB will be remembered for, it’s those.

Nevertheless, aside from using Census data, the article could’ve investigated this unment demand by asking Wishek’s retiring attorney what his income was over the last five years, let’s say. Was it greater after tax, shelter, and transportation costs than what one could get in a college-type job in Bismarck or the Twin Cities, assuming all law graduates make equal student loan payments on IBR? How much of that income came just from serving Wishek clients? Did he regularly have to drive to represent people, and if so how far? What about his clients’ travels to consult with him? How much of his clients’ problems were due to rural poverty rather than lack of access to representation? Which problem should be prioritized?

More broadly, and this applies to the ABA’s immediate-past president’s apparent position that there’s a “paradox” of unment legal needs and too many law school graduates, there’s a difference between a “shortage” in economics and in common parlance. In economics, a shortage occurs when the price of a good or service falls below its equilibrium level, i.e. it’s so cheap that everyone buys it up before its price rises. By contrast, a shortage as commonly understood—the definition the Journal is using—is when poor people can’t afford to buy something but still need or want it.

The difference is important, and while I have my issues with neoclassical economics’ definitions and trivialization of poverty, its point is to distinguish between situations in which people merely want things as opposed to when market failures prevent them from buying them even though they have dollars in hand. One is measurable (usually); the other is not (usually). Maybe the legal profession relishes treating late-stage capitalist urbanization as a sudden problem rather than a long-term phenomenon, but I’ll take a stab: Even when rural Americans have the dollars in hand, the invisible costs of such a significant relocation cannot be ignored. Personally, I believe plenty of lawyers (even new grads) would be happier living in a rural community than they might think, but it’s still a big risk. It essentially means abandoning one’s connections, be they family or friends, and it isn’t any easier to shift jobs or restart careers in a city if things don’t work out.

Thus, the total cost of inducing people to move ends up being more than the community can really afford. Indeed, people are moving away from these communities, so why should lawyers move to them? It’s like encouraging homeless people to move to North Las Vegas because it has so many empty houses. Other forces are at work.

That having been said, like the South Dakota community discussed in my previous take on this topic, Wishek appears to have solved the problem by paying for office space to encourage lawyers to move there. Paying people to work often creates jobs, Grasshopper.

So, good luck to the two people who have taken Wishek up on its offer. The five-year median household income in McIntosh County in 2012 was $36,327 and per capita income was only $24,134 (source: Census Bureau). The averages are much higher indicating that there are some very well-off people in the area, but no one should mind if they have to take a day off and drive 90 miles to talk to a lawyer.

So, again, whenever the “no rural lawyers bogey” pops up, consider whether the claimants are hyping a long-term problem that’s festered for decades or are just equivocating their terminology and saying that the poverty of poor people is a paradox. It’s self-evidently not.

4 comments

  1. Great post. And, truthfully, did we really expect ABA shills to do their “research?”

    “Doing your Research” is the explanation for why the scammed-graduate little people don’t have jobs, not for the folks in charge.

  2. I believe there is an unmet need for legal services in rural America, but as long as newbie lawyers are saddled with so much debt, that need will continue to be unmet. It’s all about the debt.

  3. There is a real need for legal services on the massive reservations in South Dakota. However, this program does little (or nothing) to address this need. Shameful.

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