Big Pond vs. Small Pond: Why Law School Graduates Should Consider Practicing in Small Communities
The time has finally come. I am days away from graduating from law school, and while words cannot adequately describe my excitement for making it to this point, alive, the lingering question still exists: What’s next?
The short answer is a great weekend of celebration with friends and family, followed by two months of bar preparation classes, capped off with the dreaded two-day exam at the end of July. The long answer is, unfortunately, the same, because I am one of the many graduating law students still scouring the job market. It is simply a product of the time that we live in and while I am confident that the right job is out there for me, I still must ask: Am I significantly limiting my job options by focusing my search on the geographic areas that I would prefer to live?
Many practicing attorneys in North Carolina would say, “Yes.” The typical issue with young lawyers is that most law schools in North Carolina are located either directly in or near a metropolitan area. Generally speaking, students get comfortable in a city and unless they have previous strong ties to a particular small community, they often hope to stay and practice in one of the large markets. The problem is that there are now a limited number of legal jobs in the large cities, but there are numerous small towns and counties in dire need of a new crop of young lawyers.
Heather Klein, a solo practitioner in Sparta, North Carolina, feels very strongly that new lawyers are severely limiting themselves by sticking exclusively to the metropolitan areas.
“Small communities are in need of qualified attorneys because so many have aging populations and, in turn, aging attorneys. The baby boom has created a gap in the smaller markets throughout this state. Younger professionals are not moving into the areas as fast as the older ones are moving out or retiring….[T]he competition is relatively non-existent and there is always enough work to go around.”
Klein, who went to law school in Florida but moved to the 12,000 person populated Alleghany County with her husband a few years ago, could not be happier with her decision to practice in a small community. She is one of only a handful of attorneys in the county and is able to thrive as a truly “general practitioner.” She represents many of the organizations in town and has her hand in real estate, trusts, family law, and everything in between. Klein emphasizes that, unlike large counties in North Carolina, small counties offer more people in need of court appointed counsel for both civil and criminal matters than there are attorneys. Furthermore, she stresses that the job satisfaction in helping to build a community is unparalleled and that additional factors such as lower stress levels, lack of traffic or long commutes, and the ability to have more family time are all factors that should be weighed by new attorneys when deciding where to practice.
One issue is that young professionals, especially law graduates, typically want to be in the areas where the “action” is. Truthfully, when you look at North Carolina’s big market cities, it is hard to blame them. Charlotte has become a powerhouse city. Uptown Charlotte has been revamped with young professionals in mind, including brand new condominiums, bars, restaurants, sports teams, and various other forms of entertainment. The Research Triangle is equally as impressive, consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the nation by numerous media outlets.
Furthermore, with Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law moving to Raleigh three years ago, there are now four distinguished law schools in the Research Triangle alone. Students from these schools are graduating and, in an effort to stay near the people and areas that they are used to, are competing over a pool of the same jobs. This has become a reoccurring trend for many years now, while small counties across the state stay under populated with attorneys.
Ricky Elmore, a 2011 graduate from North Carolina Central University School of Law, never once doubted his desire to practice in one of North Carolina’s metropolitan areas.
Elmore, who agrees that there are numerous opportunities for young lawyers in small towns, also strongly believes that quality of life should be a major factor in deciding where to practice. He offered, “I knew that I was happy in Raleigh, so that is where I was determined to practice. Practicing in a smaller community undoubtedly has advantages, but at this point in my life I wanted to stay in a larger city, so that is where I narrowed my search.”
This strategy worked out well for Elmore, as he now runs his own successful criminal defense practice in conjunction with a well-established firm in downtown Raleigh. But is this approach to job-hunting a risk that other graduates can afford to take?
Campbell Law has noted a significant increase in the number of graduates staying in larger cities since the move to Raleigh three years ago. The Campbell graduating class of 2009, the last to graduate in Buies Creek, saw a total of 30 new lawyers obtain jobs in either the Research Triangle or Charlotte metropolitan areas. In contrast, out of the Campbell graduates from 2011, the most recent class to graduate in Raleigh, a total of 73 graduates have obtained employment in the same areas. From these statistics, the largest change has been in Raleigh itself, since a total of only 20 students from 2009 ended up in Raleigh, where as 56 students from last year’s class maintained their Raleigh residence. This should not be surprising as one of the largest draws for Campbell’s move was to be in the capital city near so many legal opportunities.
However, one argument against Campbell’s move to the Triangle was that students would never get to spend time in Buies Creek and see firsthand the advantages to practicing within a small community. While it is difficult to argue the continued legacy and success of Campbell Law since the move to Raleigh, one can see the valid argument to maintaining a North Carolina law school in a smaller community as a reminder that the legal profession is one that is needed everywhere, not just in big cities.
All in all, there is no easy answer to the problem of having too many well-qualified attorneys in North Carolina’s larger cities. Young law school graduates need to understand that the best chance of obtaining employment will be by playing the game of numbers. Most importantly, this includes applying for positions outside of the major markets. Charlotte, Raleigh, and the other larger communities are great places to live in North Carolina, but so too are the thousands of small towns that also need lawyers.
Working in a small community has numerous advantages. The need for attorneys is great, the competition level is relatively low, and the compensation level is potentially endless. Not to mention the fact that practicing in a small community typically allows for a truly “general” practice, where each day is different than the one before. Becoming a valued member of a strong community also has notable advantages when compared with being just another attorney in a city seemingly full of them. Heather Klein surmised the opportunities by stating, “The best description for working in a small community is: Life is Good.”