Oregon State Bar Bulletin OCTOBER 2015
Unmet legal needs. Opportunities for professional and personal growth and satisfaction. Flexible hours and a good work/life balance.
For new attorneys who want to have an impact right away and not wait for years to feel they are making a difference, small towns and rural parts of Oregon can offer all these.
That’s according to lawyers now practicing in public and private settings in parts of southern Oregon and the south Oregon coast. They describe the pros and cons of small-town practice, what drew them to live and practice where they are, and to what extent they see openings now and in the near future in their region.
This is the first in a planned series of upcoming Bulletin stories that will examine — from the perspective of practicing lawyers — conditions and opportunities in non-urban parts of the state for attorneys who are just starting out or those who want a change of pace.
One of Oregon State Bar President Richard G. Spier’s goals is to help the bar find ways to bridge what he refers to as the “justice gap.”
“On the one hand, the OSB has many unemployed or underemployed lawyers, who are eager to represent clients,” he notes. On the other, a large proportion of Oregonians go without legal help when they need it. “As a way to bridge this gap, we’re encouraging lawyers to consider private practice in rural areas and small communities.”
“During my trips around Oregon to meet with local bar groups, lawyers in those geographical areas repeatedly tell me that good opportunities exist there for lawyers willing to make the move,” Spier says. “Established lawyers are willing to provide mentorship, referrals, introductions and advice. There is often more work than the established lawyers can handle.”
These established lawyers also tell him that “it is possible to quickly become community leaders — in school districts, other local government, charitable and political groups, and simply by getting to know local businesspeople and neighbors. These contacts are not only a satisfying way to serve, but also are effective marketing of a new or growing law practice.”
Josh Soper, who served as county counsel to Coos County when he spoke with the Bulletin for this article, said he discovered when coming to Coquille to work four years ago that “there are a tremendous number of opportunities to get involved in the community and to be a community leader.” He represented his region in the OSB House of Delegates for the past three years and earlier this year was appointed to serve on the OSB Disciplinary Board for the region.
“There are a lot of other opportunities like that, given the limited number of attorneys in this area,” he says. In addition, he notes that the need is high for attorneys and others to become involved in civic and volunteer roles with local organizations. “There are definitely a lot of unmet needs there — many local government committees and boards have positions that go unfilled, for example, and a number of colleagues of mine have served on the boards of local nonprofits. A lot of local leadership positions are held by attorneys, which means even more opportunities will open up as some of them move toward retirement.”
Practicing law in rural areas also affords the chance to rapidly make an impact in local bar associations. For example, two attorneys new to Klamath Falls within the past two years quickly moved into leadership positions in the county bar association. Mika N. Blain, who joined the Law Offices of Melinda M. Brown in 2013, serves as bar president, while Sarah M. Hays, who joined the law firm Parks & Ratliff in February 2014, is vice president.
Billable Hours Begone
The most common theme lawyers practicing in small towns echoed was their desire for a particular quality of life. Take Andrew M. Goll, a Coos County attorney who is a member of the fifth generation of his family living in that area. When he graduated from law school in 2010, he had three job offers, two in Portland and one in Seattle.
“I didn’t take any of them,” he says. “I’m kind of a free spirit. I don’t like stereotypical billable-hours demands that firms place on associates.” He figures that in a big city, he wouldn’t know anybody, would have to work very long hours every week, and someone in the firm could just walk in one day and say, “You’re gone.” “This isn’t the quality of life I was seeking. Whereas here, you make a name for yourself.” His principal current client wanted someone who could do collection law. “I picked it up and ran with it,” Goll says. “The firms I interviewed with, the salary, compared to the hours they were demanding I work, were options that didn’t work for me.”
In June 2014, he was able to take a portion of the practice of a lawyer who essentially had served as in-house counsel for a debt collection agency. Goll has his own office, which adjoins the agency’s complex.
“I was in the right place at the right time and able to secure an amazing opportunity,” Goll says. “I’m very comfortable and content with being a solo practitioner. If I want to skip a day or go in there at night, I can, as long as the work gets done. In a firm, I would not have that flexibility.”
Likewise, Blain’s firm doesn’t require a set amount of billable hours. “I receive a salary, and my raises are partly based on the amount of business I bring in or bill,” she explains. “However, there are some other associates here in town that receive a percentage of the business they bring into the firm, so of course there is an incentive to bring in business and bill.” She previously worked in small to midsize firms in Seattle, where she did not have a set billable-hour goal. “However, the pressure is still there to bill. I have friends who work for bigger firms that require minimum billable hours, and I know that is stressful.”
Hays says her Klamath Falls firm applies no pressure for billable hours. Instead, she is compensated with a base salary and a bonus structure.
Amber Reed, an attorney with MuenchrathLaw in Coquille, says her contract does not specify a billable-hour requirement. “I partly set my schedule, outside of court dates, which is pretty fantastic,” she says. Reed grew up in Coos County, and she expected to return at some point. After passing the bar in 2014, she set up some informational interviews “to see what practice opportunities were like.” She received and accepted an offer to practice in Coquille. In a firm of two full-time attorneys and one part-time, Reed does criminal defense, domestic law and estate planning.
Choosing that firm “was a great professional opportunity and a good fit,” she says. Reed likes the variety of work. “Another draw is a pretty good work/life balance,” she says. “My family is here,” as are outdoor activities such as kayaking, hiking and swimming.
Indeed, the call of the wild is a factor attracting many young attorneys. Erin S. Levenick figured she could combine her desire to boost access to justice with being able to go to Crater Lake after work, she says. A staff attorney in the Grants Pass office of Oregon Law Center, Levenick grew up in Salem but later worked and went to college in Portland.
“I knew when I was in law school that I wanted to do public service work,” she says. “So this job fit really well into that.” In addition, “I was always into the Oregon outdoor scene.” She admits, though, “It wasn’t necessarily an easy decision to move to where I didn’t know anybody.” But she remained undeterred by the relatively lower salaries of public interest law, pointing out that small towns offer a lower cost of living. Many law students and new attorneys may fear that if they choose a rural area or public interest law, they will never be able to repay their loans. But Levenick researched her law schools before choosing the University of California, Davis, School of Law, which offered a loan repayment assistance program.
LRAPs can be either state-based — the Oregon State Bar has one — or school-based. The programs are designed to help borrowers make their student loan payments. “The basic idea is that I apply to U.C. Davis for LRAP, they send me a loan to make my monthly federal loan payments. If I stay in my nonprofit job and comply with the program, U.C. Davis will forgive the loan they sent me. In practice, this means that I receive a large portion of my monthly loan payment from U.C. Davis, which I then send to my federal student loan servicer. When I was deciding on a law school, I researched each school’s LRAP program, and the strength of the program was a big factor in my decision on which school to attend.”
Levenick lives fairly close to her office and walks to work. Her office is across the street from the courthouse. Among the other benefits to practicing in a small town is that you “have an instant connection with other young attorneys in a similar” situation to yours. “There are not a lot of us, but we were able to identify each other pretty quickly.”
Other rural attorneys followed Levenick’s path in seeking their first law job in public interest or municipal law. Soper was hired right out of law school as assistant county counsel for Coos Bay. After just nine months on the job, he became county counsel. A native of Michigan, he moved to Portland before becoming a lawyer. Once he passed the bar, he looked at local government law. Finding the Coquille post was a “combination of chance and openness to the possibility,” he says. “I wasn’t specifically looking for a rural area, but was open to anywhere in the state.”
“I sure hope the next generation of lawyers doesn’t feel like they have to live in the city,” says Warren K. Bruhn, a staff attorney with Umpqua Valley Public Defender in Roseburg. Bruhn has resided or worked in places as small as 100 people to as large as Los Angeles. The public defenders’ office has “given some attorneys a start at their first law job,” and as older attorneys retire, more openings will come, he says. Also, “District attorneys’ offices are a great opportunity for young lawyers to come in. The pay is adequate,” and — if they work in either type of public legal work — attorneys may be able to take advantage of LRAPs or the federal 10-year public service loan forgiveness program.
Private practices and positions also are a possibility, depending on the county, Bruhn says. “Some have a large number of attorneys who are retiring, and you can be successful.” New lawyers may have to accept “two to five lean years” to get established in some of these areas. Some counties or towns may have fewer people who can afford to hire an attorney. “Those clients may gravitate toward people already established.”
Bruhn, who has spent nearly six years in his previous and current stints in the Umpqua Valley Public Defender office, says he enjoys helping people through his job. In between times working there, he had lived and practiced in the Portland metropolitan area for 10 years. He much prefers Roseburg, and he finds the legal community more collegial than in the metro area. Making friends is easy, as is becoming known professionally.
“You rub elbows with decision-makers in the rural counties, and that can be rewarding,” he says. “It’s easier to get opportunities to run for judge in one of these rural counties” or to gain contracts to serve as a prosecutor or judge in small towns. “It’s a pleasure to live here.” He says the quality of law being practiced there, and the quality of his professional life, are “just as good, if not better,” than that in the Portland area. “I love what I do in my day, and I love what I do when I’m off work.”
Bruhn has a 10-minute commute when he leaves home from his log house, which overlooks 300 acres, where he cannot see another house from his home. On his way in, he often spots wild turkeys, deer, elk and other wildlife. “It’s quiet and relaxing,” he says. “I think I’m strongly inclined to spend the rest of my legal career here. I could be happy staying here to retirement, and maybe even beyond.”
Scott T. Bailey was hoping for a job as a prosecutor or public defender. Bailey, who practices in Florence, finished high in his law school class and passed the bar in 2009. But it was a challenging time for new law graduates seeking jobs. For instance, he applied to work at legal aid in Hillsboro — as did over 200 other applicants, many of whom were experienced attorneys, he notes. “There were hundreds of lawyers out there and not many jobs,” he says. Even though he had contacts in Multnomah and Clackamas county district attorneys’ offices, they had no openings and had imposed a hiring freeze. “That was pretty much the story in Portland. If there’s not a lot of legal work out there, it’s hard for a new lawyer to open up,” he says.
But he replied to an attorney in Florence who wanted a lawyer to buy part of his practice, to handle Social Security disability. “A surprising number of people on the coast” are disabled or injured on the job and seek disability coverage, Bailey found out, so he took the chance and accepted the offer. Social Security disability cases can take from six months to more than two years to resolve, he says. “I was making money by the next month. I was making a living within six months, easily paying rent and taking care of business expenses.”
Bailey says Florence is home to a lot of 60-plus and retired people. There is plenty of elder law-type work available. Six lawyers work in the town, two or three of them part time. Florence could support one or two more lawyers, he thinks. “We could use one who would do litigation work. The one difficulty we have in Florence: The courthouse is 60 miles away. That makes it difficult to do litigation work.”
At the end of last year, he took over the entire practice after the attorney who brought him in retired. Bailey likes living and working there. “I grew up in large cities. That part was almost a bigger adjustment for my wife and I, growing up in Seattle and Portland. We got lucky and found a nice place to live. It’s nice and quiet and private. You don’t have to deal with traffic; you’re not competing with other humans for everything you have to do. I have a six-minute commute. I’m only an hour away from Eugene if I have any city needs.”
Individual Fit is Key
Small-town lawyers advise that a successful match of new attorney and practice area depends heavily on the preferences and circumstances of the individual attorney.
Perhaps the adjustments that pose the least resistance are when new attorneys start their practice in the place where they were raised. They know folks in town, and they know more what to expect.
“The entire legal community has been welcoming and supportive,” says Coquille native Reed. “I get to work with genuinely kind practitioners that are invested in my success. There is a very strong sense of community here; as a young professional, there are a lot of opportunities to be involved and give back. My work schedule is flexible, which allows me to travel, spend time with my family, and enjoy the outdoor recreation opportunities the south coast has to offer.
Klamath Falls’ Hays, raised in Condon, wasn’t opposed to practicing in a small town when she passed the bar last year. But she chose Klamath Falls partly for economic reasons: “I was observing that my classmates were not getting jobs. It was really competitive in Portland, Salem, Eugene.” By way of the Oregon State Bar’s Economic Survey, she found that southern Oregon had relatively fewer lawyers per capita, and that a high percentage planned to retire in the next five years. She translated that as a need for attorneys in southern Oregon.
“This is a business,” Hays says. “You want to look at your market. If the market’s saturated, for a new lawyer it’s nearly impossible.” On the day she was sworn in, she was offered and accepted a position with her Klamath Falls firm, which consists of two partners and Hays.
“Quality of life is important to me,” she says. “I was never drawn to work in a 20- to 30-lawyer practice working 70 to 80 hours a week. I wanted life balance. I wanted 8-to-5 in a small town. I could get that, and work late as needed. I wanted to have quality of life outside of law.
“One of the drawbacks: It’s isolated and insular,” she adds. “I get the sense it is a little more Wild West being out here.” She felt she got some resistance in acceptance from a few other lawyers because she was new and not from the town. Also, “There’s really high unemployment here, and not a lot of people with higher education. It can be hard to identify with people.” She wishes she could socialize with other types of professionals and not just other lawyers.
Hays thinks there is room for more attorneys. But she warns that if new lawyers are looking for $100,000 incomes their first year, they might need to accept $50,000 to $60,000 their first few years instead. Moreover, “If you have a family, it’s a fine place. If you’re single, you may find it to be very lonely. I would not be able to stay here if I was single; I would be miserable. There have been other female lawyers who were single, and they left. They either found somebody somewhere else, or they were or so lonely or isolated they couldn’t handle it anymore.”
Similarly, Blain observes that, unlike in Seattle where she lived for a decade and practiced law before moving back home to Klamath Falls, there is no pro football team, fewer concerts or events, and not the variety of restaurants. Young attorneys who are single and right out of law school may be looking for more of a social life, she says. “We have fishing, hunting and hiking, but if you want a social life, this is not the place.”
“I think there are opportunities out there in small-town practice if you go and look for it, or if you know somebody,” says Goll. He thinks new attorneys can make it in a small town if they do as he did and are in the right place at the right time or if they know somebody. “If I were going to any town with no connections, I don’t think I could make it. But if you do have a way to get in, there’s less competition.” He advises lawyers to join organizations such as the chamber of commerce or Rotary Club to gain “local knowledge” of what people value.
“It’s not hard to get involved and be known for who you are,” says Bailey. “I don’t advertise except in the Yellow Pages; 90 to 95 percent of my business is referral.
“Underserved areas are ripe. A new lawyer coming out of law school would have a better opportunity to have a successful law practice in a smaller area, unless you can get government-type work, but there are not a lot of those jobs out there.”
One contingency for a match of lawyer to town can be a spouse or partner’s amenability and suitability to the setting. Bailey’s wife was a nurse at Kaiser Permanente, but in Florence, she works in the office with her husband, for lack of nursing jobs locally.
Klamath Falls’ Blain grew up in the town, but lived in Seattle before marrying her husband, who lived and worked in Klamath Falls.
“He had a business here,” she explains. “It was easier for me to move. I know a lot of people.” She handles civil litigation and estate planning cases. Having local connections helps, says Blain. It’s a small legal community, and she gets a lot of referrals from other attorneys. In Seattle, “It was hard to have a personal connection with my clients.” Now that she is practicing in her hometown, many clients say they feel they have a connection and can trust her.
As for the demand for lawyers, “We need a few more,” Blain says. “Our biggest issue is, a lot of lawyers are in their early to mid-60s and looking to retire. It has been expressed to me that this is a concern.” Some local attorneys were not from there originally. Some came in by working in the district attorney’s office.
“The person matters,” she says. “If you get along with people here, it’s a supportive community.”
Three-attorney firms such as where she practices constitute a large law firm in Klamath Falls. “The nice thing is, you’re going to be thrown in right away,” Blain points out. “You’re going to get a lot of practice and experience.”
The aging of the attorney population is an important consideration, agrees Coos Bay’s Goll, who is 29. “I would say that over 70 percent of the lawyers are over 50 in this town. In the next five to 15 years, there’s going to be massive retirement.” Only a handful of lawyers are under 50, he adds. If the huge Jordan Cove liquid natural gas project comes to fruition, “it will create an enormous amount of jobs.” It’s just one example of pockets of activities in small towns that can create a need for lawyers, he points out.
Based on research conducted by the Oregon State Bar in the fall of 2014, Coos County bar members who are under age 40 equal 12 percent, and those over 60, 44 percent. Other partly or mainly rural counties that show an age imbalance include Josephine County, which contains 21 percent under age 40 vs. 43 percent over 60; Jackson County: 17 percent under 40 vs. 41 percent over 60; Curry County: 19 percent vs. 50 percent; Crook County: 0 percent vs. 50 percent; Lake County: 25 percent vs. 50 percent; Lane County: 20 percent vs. 41 percent; Lincoln County: 10 percent vs. 41 percent; Tillamook County: 20 percent vs. 40 percent; Wasco County: 28 percent vs. 47 percent; and Linn County: 21 percent vs. 37 percent.
Soper says he perceives that there are two types of attorneys who choose to locate their practice in rural areas: “those who want to make a life there,” and those who want to obtain “invaluable experience you can’t get anywhere else and take it (elsewhere). I was open to the experience.” He now is city attorney to Sherwood — partly because he missed certain amenities such as Target and Apple stores.
Referring to the Coos Bay area, Soper says, “There are a lot of other opportunities in this part of the state and others” like it. For example, working for a district attorney’s office is a good way to obtain trial and other skills that are transferable. “There definitely seems to be a lot of opportunities in private practice.” Some attorneys are looking to retire or sell their practice or take in new attorneys under their wing for a few years. “The demand for legal services outstrips the supply. If I were in private practice, this area would be a tempting place because there is so much opportunity here.”
Being from outside the area, “I was concerned that you wouldn’t be welcome, but that’s not the case at all,” Soper says. Local lawyers are “friendly and welcoming. It’s a very small bar association. You get to know the other attorneys very quickly. I think they’re aware of the situation as far as the upcoming shortage of attorneys, and are extra welcoming.”
Roseburg’s Bruhn says small towns need more of the type of lawyers in Soper’s first category: those who want to stay. “It’s frustrating to have someone here three years and see them jump to a bigger town,” he says. “The challenge is, how do we keep them here? We need people to have experience in this type of law. It’s not easy to achieve that.” He reminds new attorneys that it’s best “to plant yourself in a place and stay there. If you move, you lose time you spent building a reputation. Most lawyers are known in a local area.”
In a small town, “One of the general pluses is, you can become very well known much more easily,” Bruhn says. Moreover, he thinks enough young attorneys may see what he has experienced in living and working in a country town.
“There’s something magical about this place and some other rural areas,” he reflects. “Klamath Falls, Coos Bay, Prineville — [lawyers in those towns] love where they are. I feel joy every week, at least, sometimes multiple days a week, just looking around and feeling grateful to live in such a beautiful area.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2015 Cliff Collins