Cordial: Attracting legal talent to rural law firms

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A struggle unfolds in the heart of rural Indiana. The rural bar grays, new associates flock to the bustling legal markets of larger cities, and law firms are left shutting their doors, leaving city squares and towns not just quieter, but underserved in essential legal services. Already, an estimated 46 to 60 of Indiana’s counties find themselves facing a “legal desert,” and rural firms struggle to find new talent to refill their pipelines.

While some of this work must be done at the professional level, there is still hope. By leveraging the unique benefits of rural communities and adopting innovative work practices, rural law firms can attract and retain talented legal professionals.

Embrace remote work

The age of digital connectivity — and the rise in remote options following 2020 — have revolutionized the profession. Today’s workforce values happiness and work-life balance over career advancement, meaning that the flexibility a remote or hybrid position offers is key. Plus, by offering remote or hybrid work arrangements, rural firms can tap into a broader pool of legal talent and create new opportunities to streamline administrative tasks, allowing attorneys to spend more time on their billable hours.

Action items:

• Offer remote or hybrid work options when possible.

• Create a remote work policy. Invest in and utilize technology to manage a remote workforce.

Collaborate with local firms

While a smaller office staff can be a benefit to some, the robust resources, range of niche experts and diverse pool of experienced practitioners in a larger city can draw associates to big law. By consolidating their resources and forming partnerships with other local firms, however, rural firms can close that gap. Collaborative efforts like co-counseling create a stronger sense of camaraderie and community among attorneys in a region. This then offers new associates an expanded pool of mentors and advisers to fall back on — making that transition from a resource-rich city to a smaller, more isolated legal community less intimidating. It can also alleviate some financial pressures in a small firm and enhance the legal services rural practitioners are able to provide.

Action items:

• Try co-counseling arrangements and resource sharing with local firms or practitioners.

• Strengthen your firm’s relationship with neighboring firms by attending local bar events or hosting your own networking dinners.

Promote your community’s benefits

Rural communities provide unique cultural and social experiences — from street festivals and community events to local football games and the close-knit relationships that characterize small-town practice. Firms should actively promote these aspects. Highlight the sense of community and the potential for direct, meaningful impact on the lives of clients and the community at large that cities often lack.

Action items:

• Include a “Community” section on your
firm’s website or marketing materials.

• Outline the various community organizations or groups a new associate could engage with.

Offer meaningful opportunities

Rural law firms can offer young associates meaningful, diverse and hands-on legal experiences early in their careers. Unlike their counterparts in larger cities, associates in a rural setting can engage in various aspects of legal practice and take on more impactful roles within the firm, providing a sense of purpose and rapid professional growth that can outweigh the challenges of rural practice. Emphasize this advantage to new associates and engage directly with potential recruits to understand and align with their aspirations.

Action items:

• Provide leadership and decision-
making opportunities early on to new associates.

• Invite associates to collaborate with you on larger cases.

Target midcareer attorneys

While recent graduates may still be attracted to the hustle and bustle of the college towns they know (and are limited by financial and social needs in the jobs they seek), midcareer attorneys are often looking for a change of pace. Target these attorneys when looking for new recruits by underscoring the advantages of rural living: a lower cost of living, safe neighborhoods and a more relaxed lifestyle. These can be particularly appealing aspects to those looking for a more stable environment.

Action items:

• Consider midlevel positions instead of scouring through the newest class of law school graduates.

• Highlight the lower cost of living, the better work-life balance, and the various organizations or ways a recruit can engage meaningfully with the community.

Use the ISBA Career Center

The ISBA Career Center serves as a hub for legal job opportunities across the state. Posting your open position on the platform can significantly increase your reach within the legal community and can help you better target attorneys. Make sure your listing is detailed and highlights the unique aspects of your firm.

Action items:

• Post your new job position to the ISBA Career Center at jobs.inbar.org.

• Describe the responsibilities and qualities you’re looking for as specifically as possible. List the unique benefits (like collaboration with local firms, remote work options, impact on the local community, etc.). Overcoming legal deserts will require a multifaceted approach. But by embracing flexibility, fostering collaboration and drawing on the unique opportunities a rural community offers, rural law firms can take steps to fill back in their pipelines and attract legal talent. Redefine the rural legal practice, not just as a career choice, but as a lifestyle choice, one rich in personal and professional rewards.•

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Christine Cordial is director of justice initiatives at the Indiana State Bar Association. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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