Bar News - July 16, 2014
New Bar President Aims to Promote Rural Practice
By: Dan Wise
NH Bar Association President Lisa Wellman-Ally is not just creating a project to help lawyers launch and succeed in running rural law practices; she is the project.
Having moved to Sullivan County 12 years ago, she leads by example, running a solo practice while also taking on the challenging role of Bar president.
The number of lawyers in the state’s three smallest counties (by population) is stagnant, with the number of entrants barely keeping pace with retirements, which are likely to accelerate with the overall “graying” of the bar. According to NHBA membership records, there are only 16 lawyers in private practice in Coos County and 25 in Sullivan County.
The project is still taking shape – Wellman-Ally hopes to heighten awareness of existing law practice management services offered by the Bar Association and show attorneys, new and old, that it is possible to practice law and pay your bills in sparsely populated parts of the state.
She sees an opportunity in the mismatch between the many unmet legal needs among the population in her county and the many un- or under-employed lawyers in the Bar’s ranks.
The initiative will strive to demonstrate the appeal of rural practice and encourage newcomers by recruiting mentors to help show them around local courts.
A steering committee of experienced and newer rural practitioners is being organized to help guide the effort. Wellman-Ally says that while unmet legal needs in these smaller, poorer counties are one aspect of the demand for legal services, “this is not a pro bono project, but one intended to enable an attorney to establish a practice servicing the needs of those with a wide range of abilities to pay… By bringing attorneys to clients, more clients will be served.”
As an example, Wellman-Ally, who practices family law and criminal law from her Claremont office, uses a variety of fee arrangements and levels of service to serve clients of modest means.
Before she became NHBA president, Wellman-Ally attended a conference on rural practice initiatives this spring in South Dakota, where a rural lawyer project has received some funding from federal sources that aim to bolster farm communities and economies. Wellman-Ally points out that lawyers and other professionals such as doctors are needed in rural communities, and their presence is seen as an asset, enabling residents to obtain services locally instead of having to travel to bigger communities.
At the NHBA Board of Governors meeting last month, Wellman-Ally invited Vermont Bar Association President-elect Dan Richardson and Executive Director Robert Paolini to discuss their own rural lawyers’ initiative, known as the Vermont Virtual Lawyer Incubator Pilot Project, which recently received a small grant from the American Bar Association.
Business incubators tend to offer low-cost or free office space in an urban area as well as support services and advice to fledgling entrepreneurs; Richardson explained that the Vermont Bar’s “virtual incubator” does not have a physical location, but offers support and guidance “virtually” to lawyers with firm startups in several small Vermont towns.
In addition to mentoring and access to continuing legal education programs, the Vermont Bar also has succeeded in securing – and is paying for – relatively inexpensive malpractice insurance for the three lawyers it selected for the pilot project.
Over an 18-month period, the attorneys in the pilot must participate in regularly scheduled status calls with the program’s advisory committee, agree not to actively seek other legal employment, develop a business plan, and commit to serving clients of all income levels.
The project sets forth a detailed timeline with milestones to help the attorneys keep on the practice-building track. The milestones include a “legal skills scavenger hunt” that requires the participants to complete a series of learning activities to broaden their understanding of the community and how law is practiced in the state.
“People are not coming in to fill the gap,” says Richardson. “New law grads are coming out of school with $200,000 student loan balances. How can they open a practice? They lack the training, and it’s a big risk.”
And finding a job with an existing local firm is a slow process. “I come from a firm with five attorneys,” says Richardson, who practices in Montpelier, the state capital with a population of less than 8,000. “It took us a year to hire an associate. It’s difficult to break in.”
Richardson and Wellman-Ally do not underestimate the challenge of building up private practice. Both acknowledge that success will be measured, in their small states, by adding lawyers in small communities by two’s and three’s. “We hope to chip away at the problem,” says Richardson.
New Hampshire’s initiative will emphasize documentation to create a “road map for replication” of best practices in starting a rural practice, said NHBA Executive Director Jeannine McCoy.