Source: ABA Profile of the Legal Profession ch. 1 (2020)

Fulfilling work can be found in legal deserts.

There are numerous reports of the problems presented by the decline of the number of primary-care physicians in the United States. The overwhelming majority of med school students understandably gravitates towards the high-paying specialty residencies. The ABA’s recent “Profile of the Legal Profession 2020” report, which includes a chapter on “legal deserts,” caused me to think about the legal profession’s similar problem—the decline of the primary-care lawyer.

After spending decades with the Philadelphia office of a global law firm as a business lawyer and managing partner, I began a late-stage teaching career by starting an entrepreneurship clinic at Penn State Law in the center of Pennsylvania. See Post 145 (discussing clinic). Consistent with the university’s land-grant mission, the clinic quickly morphed into a small-business clinic that represents startup and early-stage businesses in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Although the clinic attracts some tech-based clients that are connected to Penn State and a number of other universities in Pennsylvania, many of our clients are small businesses in rural and semi-rural communities that would qualify as legal deserts in the ABA report. Over half of the counties in Pennsylvania have fewer than 100 lawyers, and as noted in the ABA report, many of the lawyers work for governmental and non-profit employers as prosecutors, public defenders, and in other roles.

The non-urban lawyers whom I have encountered through the clinic are generally far less specialized than urban lawyers. The non-urban lawyers generally break down into two broad categories: those who do litigation of every type (personal injury, criminal, divorce, and commercial) and those who do everything else (buying and selling businesses and real estate, loans, leases, employment, tax and estate planning, etc.). Urban lawyers often belittle the skills of the non-urban lawyers, but based on my experience in both worlds, the non-urban lawyers deserve much more credit. They are the primary-care lawyers who develop recurring relationships with their clients and need to field a much broader range of questions and projects than specialists living in urban locales.

Based on my experience working in rural counties, the business practice is understandably one of the first to dry up for local lawyers, assuming that it ever existed. The competition for our pro bono clinic is usually a do-it-yourself solution on the Internet as opposed to another lawyer. Rural residents can still find a lawyer to handle their criminal proceeding or their personal injury claim but most other legal needs go unattended, including wills.

Before venturing to a big city after law school, I resided in a small town that is the county seat of a small Pennsylvania county that, according to the ABA report, now has 180 lawyers; four of the adjoining counties have fewer than 100. I had a number of summer retail jobs in what used to be a vibrant business district in the middle of town, which included an elaborate Victorian courthouse built in 1880. My summer jobs exposed me to many lawyers, and being a lawyer in that town was a big deal when I was growing up. I suspect that it still is.

It is easy to challenge my romanticizing of the life of a small-town lawyer—I was able to reap the profits of Big Law and then revert to what some often misperceive as a slower life when a high income is not as important to me. With that caveat, I still think that it is possible to make a good case for a life as a primary-care lawyer. Although subjective, there is significant value in having personal relationships with your clients that are based on trust. The owner-operator of a new family restaurant is more grateful to his or her lawyer than the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company that retained a big firm for a transformative merger. The clients in small towns are not asking their lawyers to submit bids in auctions for the clients’ new legal projects, nor are they hiring third-party auditors to “flyspeck” printouts of the lawyers’ billable time. It is more likely that the clients in small towns will greet their lawyers with the “Attorney” honorific than to send their lawyers a standard set of “Vendor Terms and Conditions.”

There have been a number of reports regarding the declining legal representation of humans vs. businesses, including posts on Legal Evolution. See, e.g., Post 037 (decline of PeopleLaw sector); Post 042 (wallet share for legal services is shrinking in PeopleLaw sector).  This is often attributed to the lower potential compensation associated with representing humans vs. businesses. New law graduates, who are often saddled with significant student loans, are understandably anxious to get that burden behind them by seeking the higher-paying urban jobs (in the same way that medical graduates seek the higher-paying residencies). The “desert problem” cannot be fixed by increasing the remuneration for personal legal services—as noted in Post 042, clients are already going without representation whenever possible.

There is no obvious solution to the desert problem. One idea worth considering is the licensing of “lawyer assistants” who could provide a wide range of personal services, in much the same that physician assistants are the sole source of medical services in many rural areas. Another possibility is promoting the wider use of tech tools that would enable primary-care lawyers to be more efficient (and have higher incomes) by using “document generators” to prepare multiple documents very quickly. In addition, some states are offering financial incentives, such as scholarships and loan forgiveness, to new law grads who are willing to practice in rural areas.

Employment has been the top-of-mind topic at almost every law school for more than the past 10 years. I encourage law students and law-school placement offices to consider the role of primary-care lawyers. It may not appear to be the brass ring associated with a big firm in New York or Washington, but for many students, it could easily lead to a more meaningful and fulfilling career.