The rural areas' biggest selling point is jobs, which have been hard for law graduates to land in recent years due to a nationwide glut of lawyers and a slump in the legal industry since the 2008 financial crisis. As of February, the employment rate for students who graduated in 2011 was about 86%, the lowest for a class since 1994, according to the National Association for Law Placement. [A friendly request to Ashby Jones et. al.: please stop quoting this meaningless figure]
"The state of the current market…is the new normal," said Arturo Thompson, dean of career services at the University of Kansas School of Law.
But in parts of the rural Midwest, communities are itching for lawyers. "The job market is good for lawyers in the western and more rural parts of Nebraska, in towns like Ogallala and Scottsbluff," said Susan Poser, dean of the law school at the University of Nebraska. "We're trying to make students more aware of those opportunities," she said . . .
"Twenty years ago, Chadron had 10 lawyers; Alliance had a dozen," said Howard Olsen, a lawyer in Scottsbluff, Neb., and a former president of the Nebraska Bar Association. "Now, they each just have two or three."
Mr. Olsen said that clients in rural Nebraska who used to find a lawyer across the street may now drive "50, 60, sometimes 100 miles" to find one.
Per the United States census, Chadron, Nebraska had 2,313 households in 2010. One lawyer for every one thousand households? Sounds like career opportunities may be abundant for unemployed Emory grads and other law talking city slickers. Farm living is the life for me!
But wait. Per that same census, how many of those Chadron households could conceivably pay a lawyer some money for his or her services? A total of 323 of those households had an income of at least $75,000.
And how many lawyers are there in Chadron anyway? According to the Nebraska bar association there are currently nine attorneys with active law licenses in good standing residing in Chadron. It's true that two of these are government attorneys, and three of the others do not list themselves as engaged in the private practice of law involving members drawn from the public (does membership in that category create certain obligations in regard to reporting liability insurance status?), but that still leaves four attorneys engaged in the private practice of law, or about one for every 80 households who might possibly be able and willing to pay a lawyer's bill, assuming they had some need for legal services that couldn't be filled by ordering a document from Legal Zoom or the like.
It should give Dean Poser (a remarkable number of people in this business have names straight out of didactic 19th century novels) and Howard Olsen pause that three out of the seven licensed private attorneys residing in Chadron don't seem to be practicing law. Here's the real problem: the vast majority of people in Chadron can no more afford a lawyer than they can found a hedge fund. The median household income in the town is $29,000; nearly a third of its residents got some sort of cash public assistance -- mostly food stamps -- last year.
Law school administrators are prone to talk about how the idea that there are too many lawyers in America can't be true, given that huge numbers of Americans who have a legitimate need for legal representation can't get such services. Once again, people who talk this way just don't want to do the math. What's the minimum revenue that a solo practitioner needs to collect in a year to have a viable business, even in a small town? $100,000? Where is that money going to come from? There are a few dozen families in Chadron who can afford to pay a lawyer. Few if any will need a lawyer this year, and those few that might will almost certainly choose to patronize one of the four private lawyers in town with active practices.
Given all this, how much sense does it make to tell a law graduate to move halfway across the country, spend the time and money necessary to become eligible to practice law in another state, and then try to find a way to make a living in a small Nebraska town? There are plenty of Nebraska and Creighton grads trying and failing to do this as it is.
The notion that the employment crisis for law school graduates is in any degree a product of the "fact" that graduates won't take "salaries starting in the low (!) to mid-five figures" because they're holding out for $160,000 big firm jobs is just another rationalization for charging lots of people lots of money to enter a profession which simply doesn't have any jobs for them, whether they're looking for those imaginary jobs in Washington DC or Chadron NE.