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  • September 25, 2019

    Connecting with Community: Tips to Establish a Strong Rural Practice

    Farmers understand long-term investment in community, and in choosing a lawyer they can trust, they may evaluate how invested a lawyer is in their community. Kate Knowlton offers tips to strengthen long-term relationships in a local rural community and to build mutually beneficial and lasting partnerships with family farmers.

    Kathryn L. Knowlton

    farmers handshake

    In the August 2019 blog article, David Krekeler detailed bankruptcy potential as one proposed option to assist family farmers in this economically challenging time. As highlighted by Krekeler, this is a vital and very technical legal resource to understand and present to clients.

    But with such comprehensive “wipe the slate clean” type of assistance, it is necessary to weigh the potentially heavy price and real time consequences of legal dissolution and/or reorganization.

    In my experience, farmers – family farmers in particular – are not inclined to needing a “fresh start,” and are much more accustomed to giving helping hands rather than receiving them. There is a very real and tangible force of tradition, self-sufficiency, and sense of dignity that underpins the stereotype of the hardy, reliable, trusted, and never-to-be-beat farmer.

    Connecting with the Rural Community

    Farmers understand long-term investment and community. They live it. It is natural that, in choosing and trusting a lawyer, a farmer will critically evaluate how a lawyer invests in and participates in their community.

    Kate Knowlton Kate Knowlton, Marquette 2000, is owner and managing attorney of Knowlton Law Group, LLC, in Wauwatosa. Her primary areas of practice are family, elder, and employment law.

    To be clear, these traits have nothing to do with applicability of bankruptcy as a viable and smart option for a healthy business bottom line. But these traits do indeed factor into the receptiveness and acceptance of clients to first, come to a lawyer for assistance at all, and second, come to a lawyer within a timeframe that maximizes options for assistance.

    Inspired by this quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant,” I humbly offer a few suggestions for connecting with a farming community – to demonstrate what most solo attorneys and small firms do to get to know their community.

    By understanding and participating in the local community, a lawyer can directly and positively establish confidence in farmers to seek legal advice as well as encourage them to seek advice at any and all stages of planning and problem-solving.

    1) Meet Them Where They Live

    Show up at farmer’s markets, go to their farms when invited, and combine business with pleasure.

    Attend local events. With just a few minutes of research time on the internet, I found events celebrating and experiencing family farm practice from Amery (via Farm Table Foundation's website) to Door County (at the Wickman House) and all sorts of places in between. Whether it is restaurants hosting farm-to-table experiences, or on-site education for you and your family (such as those in Hayward), farmers are like everyone else – they appreciate when you show up. And frankly, showing up at their workplace is usually a lot of fun.

    One source to bookmark is the local Chamber of Commerce events calendar (like Spooner's) – and the local library bulletin board. Though these may seem old-fashioned, you may be very surprised about the things you otherwise wouldn’t know and don’t want to miss.

    2) Be Available When and Where They Are

    Farmers are often and very uniquely at the whim of things that other clients may not even be aware of – like weather, hours of daylight, and fuel or labor constraints. Asking about the best time, days, and locations for a meeting can be foundational in building respect, rapport, and longevity with farming clients.

    Providing for nontraditional hours for consultations that demonstrate respect for a farmer’s time. This is a very (seemingly) simple way that most solos and small-firm attorneys most likely already accommodate in their practice.

    Your flexibility in just raising the potential that you could meet them at their workplace, or after daylight hours will be appreciated. In my own experience, the fact that I offered it was more important to a secure and productive meeting and long-term relationship, than it actually being necessary.

    3) Host Informational Sessions Relevant to Farmers

    The basic support necessary for any startup, growing, or established business apply just as much (and sometimes more) to family farms.

    Consider hosting an informational session on issues like basic wills, powers of attorney, and B Corp status. Even better, collaborate with other local businesses – such as tax preparers and yoga instructors – to expand perspectives, double potential attendance, and split the presentation work. There is no doubt that your ideas are better than mine, but take advantage in pursuing your own interests as well (yoga?), as enthusiasm is contagious, and community is built.

    This sounds more involved than it is. Farmers have not chosen to be business owners or lawyers, they have chosen to be farmers. Just as you have chosen to be a lawyer, not a farmer or rock star.

    (But professions can absolutely support one another and result in benefiting both! Here is my plug for Farm Aid Festival, which provides a wonderful example of one profession [rock stars] supporting another – and the mutually beneficial results that can come from such acknowledgement and respect. Farm Aid 2019 took place in Wisconsin this year, on Saturday, Sept. 21 at Alpine Valley. The festival brings national attention directly home to highlight the struggles, dignity, pride and absolute day-to-day necessity of farmers to society).

    No Shortcuts

    We all work better, usually for longer and more productively, with partners we know are invested and authentic. There is no substitute for sincere interest and care in providing legal service and advice.

    The few tips above offer some straight-forward, free, and maybe cost-effective ways to gain access, provide credibility, and establish life-long client and referral relationships.

    But the daunting (and for clients, sometimes intimidating) realities of niche practices and specialized credentialing, though valuable and necessary, sometimes narrows the view and can out-glitter the valuable relationship-building that is the foundation of a successful and comprehensive practice.

    Only through these relationships can we understand and trust clients, and only in correctly contextualizing their interests can we offer the best advice.

    Community is a powerful force. So is the law. Engage.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Agriculture Law and Rural Practice Blog of the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section. Visit the State Bar sections or the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


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    Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Blog is published by the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Nancy Trueblood and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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