Deborah M. Richter, Mitchell Hamline School of Law 2017, opened her own law office in Park Falls. She says, “Once you start helping a few clients in a small town, word spreads. If you are knowledgeable, helpful, honest, and nice, it spreads faster.” Photo: Norman Tesch
State Bar of Wisconsin members are geographically dispersed within and outside of Wisconsin. Of 25,284 members, approximately 33 percent live outside the state.1 Nearly 50 percent of members live in the seven most populous counties: Brown, Dane, Milwaukee, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Racine, and Waukesha.2 Roughly 17 percent of members call the state’s remaining 65 counties home.3 This last group typically represents the majority of Wisconsin’s rural residents.
I recently interviewed rural lawyers to better understand how they succeed in practice. They provided practical advice about the practice of law in rural counties. They also shared their perspectives on the benefits, challenges, and experiences they’ve faced. In addition to highlighting several important aspects of rural practice, this article draws a roadmap for those seeking to practice in one or more of Wisconsin’s less populous counties.
If you are looking to start your own firm or join a rural practice, your first task is to choose where you would like to live and then identify the contacts you have within the area. If you do not have any contacts, there are several opportunities to make some. For instance, you could take part in the State Bar’s Greater Wisconsin Initiative Bus Tour (see the accompanying sidebar) this fall. Connect with local bar or specialty bar associations. Meet lawyers who focus on rural practice issues, such as those who write the Agricultural Law and Rural Practice Blog,4 produced through the State Bar’s Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section.
Christopher C. Shattuck, Univ. of La Verne College of Law 2009, M.B.A. U.W.-Oshkosh 2015, is manager of Practice411™, the State Bar’s law practice assistance program. If you have questions about the business aspects of your practice, call (800) 957-4670.
Deborah Richter grew up in northern Wisconsin and had always wanted to stay in the area. Even though she lived in another rural area, she took advantage of the Greater Wisconsin Initiative Bus Tour to Rhinelander in 2016, which showed her how other rural lawyers were handling matters and the camaraderie that can be found among lawyers. Moreover, local lawyers offered to help new or soon-to-be lawyers who were considering starting their own practices.
Mike Windle, a law student, said, “I grew up in the suburbs of the Mid-Atlantic, never had real experience with small towns, but through the 2017 bus tour, found them friendly and inviting. The bus tour was a great way to see life and envision a career in a smaller community. Starting or joining a rural practice is still high on my list of potential careers following my graduation next year. The bus tour was a big part of that decision.” Windle expects to graduate from the U.W. Law School in 2019.
“The bus tour provides a unique opportunity for participants to network with and learn from prominent members of rural counties,” added Annette Ashley, the State Bar’s member services director. “Speakers from last year’s tour included several leaders from the justice system (circuit court judges, court of appeals judges, a county sheriff, a district attorney), law firms, businesses, education representatives, and chambers of commerce.”
Richter eventually chose to open a law practice in Park Falls, in rural Price County, to serve the residents, her neighbors. The outpouring of community support was immense, not only for a local woman coming back to serve the needs of the community but also for another local presence as older lawyers retire.
The local chamber of commerce also provided support to her new law office. Richter said, “The chamber of commerce contacted me about being a member. After joining, the chamber of commerce did a grand opening ceremony and the community newspaper did an article to go along with the grand opening picture.” The article created awareness of Richter’s business and helped generate new clients.5
When Todd Schluesche graduated from law school in 1994, none of his classes prepared him to run a law firm. He learned the business aspects of practicing law after graduating and practicing law in Monroe.
According to Schluesche, “It can be really valuable to clerk or intern for someone who works in a small town or a rural setting. That’s how I got a glimpse of what the practice of law is like in a smaller community. It’s also how I got my first job after law school, as I was offered a position by the firm I clerked for.”
Starting a Practice in a Rural Community
Here are some specific tips for opening a law firm, especially in a rural community.
Take part in the Greater Wisconsin Initiative Bus Tour. Although the registration period for this year’s tour has passed, there still may be openings available.
Fill out a mentee application for the State Bar’s Ready. Set. Practice. Lawyer to Lawyer Mentoring Program.
Contact Practice411™ (the State Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Program) for a confidential consultation at (800) 957-4670.
Contact the State Bar’s Ethics Hotline for a confidential consultation at (608) 229-2017 or (800) 254-9154.
Review the Office of Lawyer Regulation’s trust account manual and trust account option chart and sign up to attend a trust account seminar by visiting www.wicourts.gov/services/attorney/trust.htm.
Determine whether your firm entity will require law firm registration with the State Bar and malpractice insurance.
Before paying full price elsewhere, review discounts for State Bar of Wisconsin members on web-based practice management, payment processing, office products programs, and other important services.
Check out resources from the Practice411™ Lending Library.
Making Your Practice Thrive
A firm’s location can help generate initial client leads. According to Richter, a significant amount of client referrals seemed to come from “location, initially”; her office “is located on a corner of a major highway at a stop light.” Richter also recalled having an initial client meeting with someone who drove by her office on the weekend and stopped by to see if she was available for a client meeting. “If my lights are on, come on in,” Richter said about client drop-ins.
It might seem easier for a potential client to Google the law office’s phone number and call for availability. However, if the potential client does not have a computer or smartphone, and the law firm is too new to be listed in the phone book, sometimes a walk-in meeting is the only available option for a new client. Richter stated, “once you start helping a few clients in a small town, word spreads. If you are knowledgeable, helpful, honest, and nice, it spreads faster.”
Schluesche recommends that lawyers get involved with their community and provide excellent legal representation to clients. These interactions are important for community involvement and have the residual effect of generating word-of-mouth referrals. He serves on several boards for local community organizations and nonprofits.
Once you start helping a few clients in a small town, word spreads. If you are knowledgeable, helpful, honest, and nice, it spreads faster.
– Deborah Richter
“In a smaller community [like Monroe], trust is a really big thing. There’s no better way of getting a new client than by a referral from a person the new client trusts. Those referrals most often come from current clients, as well as community leaders whom I have met and worked with in various organizations. Referrals carry a lot of weight in a smaller community, especially because the lawyer-client relationship here tends to be a continuing one. Our clients think of us whenever a legal need arises, so we need to be able to help them in a variety of legal areas. That variety, along with the continuing client relationships, are two of the biggest things I enjoy about my practice.”
In addition to referrals, Schluesche uses other marketing techniques to gain and keep business. Radio ads broadcast during daily newscasts have generated very good results for his firm. Monroe no longer has a daily newspaper, so the local radio station is one of the only sources of daily news and events.
Although Monroe is a smaller community, internet access is widely available, including to those who live in the countryside. Schluesche is updating his firm’s website, as he believes the internet is now the first place potential new clients go when looking for a lawyer. Schluesche’s firm also sponsors various community activities, donates to local causes, and advertises in church bulletins. Ideally, law firms should pursue several different advertising avenues within their budgets to reach potential clients.
Todd W. Schluesche, U.W. 1994, returned to his hometown of Monroe after graduation, where he has practiced ever since. He is the managing shareholder of Kittelsen, Barry, Wellington, Thompson and Schluesche S.C., a firm with five attorneys.
A common misconception is that lawyers need a lot of money to buy the necessary technology to open a solo practice. However, most solo practices can function quite well with only a computer, an all-in-one device (fax, copier, scanner, and printer), and a cell phone. Those items can be purchased for less than $1,000 together. Most software providers are trending toward monthly subscription fees, just like cloud-based practice management tools and office products. As such, there are not high-cost barriers to starting a firm. The most challenging aspect is ensuring that the lawyer has significant savings to draw on until the business turns a profit.
Schluesche noted that his firm is using cloud-based practice management tools and software, including Clio and Microsoft Office 365. They also plan to convert their electronic client file storage to cloud-based rather than server-based. “There are a couple of reasons why servers have been less than optimal. The first reason is that servers break down and they eventually have to be replaced. And the other is the ability to have secure access to our client files and to be able to work when we are not physically in the office.”
Lawyers in rural communities usually have the advantage of interacting with and working collaboratively with clients, judges, and other lawyers. Having personal contacts with the lawyers on the opposing side and working in a smaller community help support civility in the legal practice. Although lawyers remain advocates for their clients and judges maintain their impartiality, all sides are more likely to come together to steer cases toward a resolution.
Another benefit of practicing law in a smaller community that isn’t always available to lawyers in cities is the ability to attend family events. “At our firm, we do what we can so that our attorneys and staff are able to attend their children’s events. We allow employees to leave work early for family events, and in the event of a schedule conflict another attorney or staff member is always willing to cover for you.” Schluesche continued, “I don’t think I’ve ever had to miss a sporting event, band concert, or any school activity that my kids were involved with.”
Most of our clients are really good about keeping law-related questions within office hours, although there are of course times when I’m out in the community and someone has a question for me.
– Todd Schluesche
And, in a small community, people recognize you. “Most of our clients are really good about keeping law-related questions within office hours, although there are of course times when I’m out in the community and someone has a question for me. I really don’t mind when people do that – I think that’s part of what you sign up for when you practice in a small community. When you go out, people recognize you as an attorney and community leader. I think that’s one of the neat things about practicing in a small community.”
Some other benefits of living in a smaller community are the lower costs of living and the ability to inform your community of your business. Opening a law office in a highly visible location and advertising in the local newspaper have a greater effect and can be cheaper than doing the same in a larger community. Of course, the benefits must also be weighed against the challenges of a smaller client pool and the time it takes to establish a financially successful law practice.
Referrals in smaller communities are important. According to Schluesche, one challenge is that although lawyers must engage in the same kind of advertising and networking activities that occur in larger cities, the client pools are smaller.
Out of that smaller client base, lawyers need to attract clients who are honest and straightforward, appreciate the work being done on their behalf, provide accurate reviews, and pay their bills on time. “You have to keep in mind that doing the work and not getting paid for it is worse than not starting the work at all because you could have helped someone else during that time,” Schluesche explained.
Other challenges Schluesche identified are the business of practicing law and running a fiscally successful law practice. When new lawyers start, they often are eager to take every client and case that comes through the door. Schluesche noted that as lawyers gain experience, they realize that outlining the estimated costs and determining the potential client’s ability to pay at the front end help to reduce disagreements down the road. Absent having a conversation and an engagement letter up front, lawyers may encounter situations when clients run up large unpaid bills.
For Richter, who started her own law firm, the initial challenge was getting the word out about her firm’s existence. She established a Facebook page and her own website and - because there was a time lag before her law office appeared in the phone book - she put her website and phone number on her sign.
The next challenge was juggling all the duties that go along with running a solo practice. “I’m the attorney, I’m the receptionist, I’m the coffee maker, and I’m the errand runner,” said Richter. Sometimes the internet is not reliable in her area, so she does not rely on cloud-computing software programs.
Another challenge for solo practitioners in a rural community is the inability to walk down the hall and bounce an idea off another lawyer. Fortunately, Richter worked as a legal assistant for 18 years before becoming a lawyer. During her time as a legal assistant, she made connections with lawyers at that firm and other firms, some of whom have been available to answer questions. For lawyers who have not yet established connections or are looking to ask a question outside their circle, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory is a helpful resource (see the accompanying sidebar).
Richter also recommends attending conferences, using discounts offered at those conferences, getting involved in a committee, and meeting other lawyers from around the state.
“I’ve met attorneys from several locations around the state and feel confident that I know the other person at the end of the phone. Establishing connections with other attorneys is extremely important, because, as an attorney, you can’t take on every case that walks in the door. If a client walks in and explains what they need, even though you can’t help them in this situation, finding another lawyer they can talk to sometimes is enough to get them to come back to you for the areas of law that you do practice. Having those connections, especially if you are not comfortable with certain areas of the law, allows you to feel confident in the referrals you are providing.”
Lawyers can also obtain practice management consultations, ethics advice, and lawyer assistance from the State Bar. According to Mary Spranger, manager of the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP), “the initial challenge for lawyers, judges, and legal professionals is confronting the stigma of asking for help. One goal of WisLAP is to advance the idea that asking for help for personal concerns is no different than asking for professional advice. Once the legal profession believes that lawyer well-being is a core competency of practice, that will help push back against stigma. As human beings, lawyers are prone to the same kinds of stressors as other people. WisLAP has a confidential hotline available 24 hours a day for those in need.”
Remember, although lawyers practicing in rural communities may be geographically isolated from other lawyers or services, assistance from the State Bar is only a phone call away.
How to Use the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory
Solo practitioners often lack the luxury of strolling down the hall to ask questions of other lawyers. For those and other State Bar members, the Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory can be a great resource.
The Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory contains a database of hundreds of lawyers who agree to share their knowledge with other attorneys. You can search by topic, city, name, or even search for attorneys who are licensed in another state.
Select a topic and click “search.”
Certain topics have subcategories, which allow you to focus on a specific area of the law.
Once you have identified the particular area of law, you can review the search results to select the appropriate lawyer to call. (As a courtesy, if you ask for a call back, offer the lawyer the option to call you collect.)
Remember that the lawyers have agreed to provide brief consultations (roughly 10 minutes).
Do not be afraid to use the directory. The resource and attorneys are there to help!
Rural versus City Law Practice
“When someone hears the words rural law, they may think that it means only agricultural transactions. However, that’s a small part of what I do. My practice includes estate planning, small businesses, collections for local banks, personal injury, probate, real estate (some of which is farm real estate), and landlord-tenant.” Schluesche’s point is that making a commitment to practice in a rural community does not mean practicing rural law exclusively. Instead, law firms in rural areas seek to serve the community’s interests and provide the preferred practice areas of the lawyer(s) in the firm.
Richter and Schluesche agreed that one can gain familiarity and comfort by consistently appearing in front of judges in smaller communities. Schluesche noted that in populous counties with multiple judges, each judge seems to have different procedures or ways of running their courtrooms. Schluesche said that when he appears before local judges, he typically knows their preferences and the way they like things to be completed or presented to the court. Richter also commented on the recognition judges provide to lawyers in smaller communities.
Don't be afraid to join the 17 percent of lawyers who represent the rural population of Wisconsin. Take part in the State Bar’s bus tour, connect with local lawyers, and use resources that will help you thrive in practice in smaller communities. If you are considering hanging out your own shingle, the State Bar of Wisconsin, local bar associations, specialty bar associations, local businesses, and other lawyers are eager to help you succeed.
Still Time to Sign Up for 2018 Greater Wisconsin Initiative Bus Tour, Oct. 5-6
Each fall, the State Bar’s Greater Wisconsin Initiative Bus Tour takes lawyers and law students to the rural and small-town areas of the state to connect with local judges, attorneys, and community and business leaders, and to learn more about life and practice in Wisconsin. The tour is a free opportunity for newer lawyers and 3L law students – and their spouses or significant others – to explore whether rural practice is right for you and will provide you with the resources you need to get started.
The 2018 tour takes place Friday and Saturday, Oct. 5-6, and visits Crawford, Grant, Buffalo, Jackson, Pepin, and Trempealeau counties. The tour includes round-trip bus transportation from Madison, meals, overnight accommodations, opportunities to meet local leaders, and plenty of time to network. For more information, see “Life and Practice in Rural Wisconsin: Bus Tour Heads West” in the August 15 issue of WisBar InsideTrack.
Don’t delay! The Oct. 5 departure date is fast approaching. If you’re interested in taking the tour, call program coordinator Michelle Sherbinow today at (608) 250-6184 or (800) 728-7788, ext. 6184, to see if seats are still available.
1 State Bar of Wisconsin membership records, July 23, 2018.
4 See “Patrick Scharmer Finds Opportunity in Rural Wisconsin” (WisBar InsideTrack, July 18, 2018).
5 Karen Dums, Richter Opens Law Office in Park Falls, Price County Review (Dec. 1, 2017).