Plenty of young aspiring lawyers dream of landing at a high-powered big-city firm after graduating. So an internship in a sleepy, rural town might not sound like a dream summer job. But that’s just what three law schools in Iowa and Nebraska are encouraging their students to consider.
And with new grads facing one of the worst job markets in decades, some say working in smaller towns is looking better.
Garner, Iowa is a small town of about 3,000 in northern Iowa. Phil Garland has practiced here for more than 30 years. He's part of an Iowa Bar Association committee that organized the internship program, which they’re hoping to expand next year.
"It’s sort of a kick the tires program, you get to know the student, have the student have some hands-on experience, see if you have a good relationship, they like the town, and at a minimal cost," Garland says.
The American Bar Association hasn’t collected data on rural law firms in more than a decade. But as younger professionals gravitate toward urban life, Garland says many older, small-town lawyers are nearing retirement with no one to fill their shoes. Some areas have just a few attorneys for an entire county.
About three hours south in Albia, John Pabst works out of an old Victorian house he and his father, a lawyers before him, bought in the late 1970s.
Pabst doesn’t have anyone waiting in the wings, so he’s also taken on a law student this summer. He says the prospect of rural life is one obstacle to recruiting young lawyers.
"If you’re a single person Monroe County, Iowa is not what I would call the hot spot for social activity," Pabst says.
Maybe not – but many recent law grads can’t afford to be quite so picky. A report from the National Association for Law Placement last year called the market for entry-level lawyers the worst in 30 years. Fewer than half founds jobs in private firms.
William Henderson says it’s a different world in rural areas. He’s a law professor at Indiana University who blogs about the legal profession. Henderson says small towns can offer more opportunities for new grads – if they expand their idea of what their first job should be like.
"You know you’re well dressed and everybody looks good and there’s clever banter, " Henderson says. "There aren’t that many work settings like that."
Henderson says he’s seen former students set up small-town practices relatively soon after graduating. And while the pay isn’t as high as a big-city law firm, neither is the cost of living.
Phil Garner's intern, Kay Oskvig, says she’s getting paid, and getting hands-on experience working on a variety of cases, while many of her classmates are interning for free with large firms.
And she isn’t stressing about her social life, either.
"I think there are places to meet people, there’s always opportunities, " Oskvig says. "They might be different, so instead of being at a bar or a social hour Friday night, you might be set up by someone’s grandmother.
"So it’s a kind of a different way of doing things."
And while Oskvig still has two years to go before she makes up her mind, she says her path to the law career she wants just might wind through a small town.