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Atticus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Rural Minnesota lawyers are facing a succession crisis. Can anything be done?

By Mike Mosedale

 

0919-Sitting-on-Fence-PostGrowing up in Hibbing, Steven Peloquin made a leap to big city life after high school, when he left the Iron Range for Harvard College and then scooted across the Charles River to get a JD from the Boston University School of Law. After returning to Minnesota, Peloquin practiced briefly in the Twin Cities. But he didn’t care for the white-knuckled commutes, and he says he always knew city life wasn’t for him in the long run. 

Eventually, he bought into a small firm in Perham (pop. 3,400), an old railroad town in west central Minnesota’s Ottertail County. The spot was perfect—close, but not too close, to family and in-laws.

Over the ensuing four decades, Peloquin built up a broad-based general practice—“typical small town grist,” he calls it—that blends family law, civil litigation, and business law, with a bit of criminal defense on the side. 

He appreciated the more informal aspects of rural lawyering. “I like to see people and talk to them. Part of the fun of being a small-town lawyer is having people popping in,” he says, before the inevitable caveat: “Up to a point.” 

Peloquin also enjoyed mentoring younger lawyers, so over the years he took on a succession of associates and partners. In time, he was able to expand his practice into three nearby communities: Park Rapids (where he lives), Detroit Lakes, and New York Mills. 

In some regards, Peloquin notes, the life of the rural lawyer has never been easier. Mainly, that’s a consequence of all the technological advances that have come to the profession since he started—first the fax machine, then email, then e-filing. 

“It’s certainly leveled the playing field in terms of accessing data. I don’t need to have a huge library anymore. I’ve got access to the same data Dorsey does,” Peloquin notes. “It also makes it much easier to have a multiple-office practice.” And telecommuting has afforded his current partner and associate (both working mothers) the sort of flexibility that would have been unfathomable a few decades back.

Still, Peloquin has detected an unmistakable trend in the small towns where he practices. While he and his fellow baby boomers have turned gray, there doesn’t seem to be a new generation of lawyers stepping in to fill their shoes. The result: a gradual—and sometimes not so gradual—winnowing of the population of country lawyers.

“I don’t see lawyers handing off their practices to younger lawyers anymore. I see them closing their practices. It just kind of withers and dies,” says Peloquin, who is now in his mid-60s and thinking about scaling back. “Are there less lawyers than 10 years ago? Yes, and a bunch of guys who are still hanging on have really reduced their practices.”

In Virginia, just a few miles from Peloquin’s boyhood home in Hibbing, Angela Sipila has seen the same thing.  “Absolutely nobody is coming up to the Iron Range to practice law anymore,” says Sipila, a Range native and Gen X-er who, with a full-throated laugh, characterizes herself as “the lawyer for the Finnish mafia.”  

But it wasn’t always this way—not even that long ago. 

Like Peloquin, Sipila likes to take on associates. At the height of legal recession, she had little trouble recruiting newly minted lawyers into her practice. In 2011, she says, a posting on a law school job board yielded about a dozen interviews. But as the economic climate gradually improved, the pool of applicants evaporated. By 2015, Sipila’s solicitation on the law school job boards didn’t elicit a single response.

When she hung out her shingle in 1999, Sipila says, baby boomers “absolutely ruled on the Range.” At the time, she thought her generation was on the cusp of supplanting the old guard. It didn’t happen. Even now, Sipila says, boomers dominate the private practices on the Range.

And when those older attorney do retire, or die, the void isn’t always filled. In the northeast Minnesota town of Tower, she notes, a recent retirement has left that community lawyer-less.

For his part, Peloquin recently decided to shutter his New York Mills office. The move, he says, leaves the town of 1,200 without a law firm.

And what will that mean for New York Mills?

“That’s a question I ask myself,” says Peloquin. “And maybe we’re wringing our hands about this too much. Maybe it won’t be that big a deal. But I think it might be.”

“Leaning on fence posts”

“I suppose I’m not really a rural lawyer,” says solo Bruce Cameron, the author of Becoming a Rural Lawyer: A Personal Guide to Establishing a Small Town Practice. (See “Not Enough Work (and 7 other myths about rural law practice),” page 38.)

This half-joking aside derives from Cameron’s standing definition of a rural lawyer as an attorney who practices where “the next lawyer is two towns over and the nearest Starbucks is a good hour away.” 

Although Cameron is, in fact, the only practicing lawyer in the southeastern Minnesota town of Mazeppa (pop. 840), he acknowledges that the nearest Starbucks is probably only 40 minutes away and thus he flunks his own litmus test.

That technicality aside, Cameron’s practice—he focuses on estate planning and “transactional stuff”—is decidedly rural in nature. Most of his clients are farmers, and he lives on a hobby farm.

Cameron, who is now 56, came to the law relatively late in life. With a background in technology, he originally aimed to get into patent law. But after passing the bar exam in 2008, it quickly became apparent that no one was hiring.
In speaking to friends and neighbors, something else became apparent, too: There wasn’t a single practicing lawyer in Mazeppa.

At first, Cameron rented an office in Rochester, mainly because there wasn’t any suitable space in Mazeppa.
But over time, he learned that his farmer-clients were amenable to house calls, so he dumped the office.

Showing up in a dairy barn in three-piece suit isn’t the only thing that separates Cameron’s practice from those of his urban counterparts. The marketing, he says, is different. With the exception of handing out custom pens with his name and number, he doesn’t even advertise his services. With many rural clients, he observes, you can’t be pushy. 

“You don’t approach the business right away. Have a cup of coffee. Have a piece of pie. Sit down with people. Ask, did you get all your hay in?” he says. “I call it leaning on fence posts. There’s more emphasis on the social parts.”

As to the economics of rural law practice, Cameron is blunt: You’re probably not going to make a fortune, but you can make a good living.

Developing a succession plan is still a major challenge for many rural lawyers. In speaking with older colleagues, he hears the same complaint. “They want to find someone who will step into their practice and continue it, not just somebody who wants to get a whole lot of experience and then move on,” he says.

For his part, Cameron says he knows lawyers he could refer his clients to if he should suddenly fall ill. But he’s yet to figure out his long-term plan. 

“Maybe a bright kid will take over and chase me out of business,” he offers. “I’m open to all eventualities.” 

Legal deserts

Since 2017, Michele Statz estimates that she’s interviewed about 100 attorneys from northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota, as well as about 30 state and tribal court judges. Statz isn’t a lawyer. She’s an anthropologist of law at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she is currently in the midst of a three-year research project into access of justice in northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin.

While her work is not finished, she’s already confident in one conclusion: There is “a severe and pervasive shortage” of lawyers across much of the region. The emergence of these legal deserts has hit some populations harder than others. While the destitute can still access services through organizations such as Legal Aid, she notes, the working poor—those who make just a little too much to qualify for such assistance—often have few options beyond the self-help kiosk at the county courthouse. That may be better than nothing—but, in Statz’s view, not much.

“I don’t think there’s any substitute for legal representation,” says Statz.

The worsening problem is hardly confined to Minnesota and it’s worse in some places. In Nebraska, research by the state bar association revealed that there were zero attorneys in 11 of the state’s 93 counties. At present, none of Minnesota’s 87 counties are entirely bereft of practicing lawyers. But the count is in the single digits in at least seven counties, most of which are concentrated in the lightly populated far western reaches of the state. Traverse County has just one resident lawyer—the part-time county attorney. 

So why don’t more lawyers want to practice in rural areas? 

Economics might seem to be the most likely explanation. But Statz thinks there’s more to it—in part, she says, because rural lawyers can still make a pretty good living if they play their cards right.

Lawyers are notoriously cagey on the subject of their earnings, and comprehensive data on the topic is elusive. But anecdotally, at least, there are some pretty lucrative practices to be had outstate. As one farm country lawyer from southern Minnesota puts it, there are “some sweet little fishing holes out here.”

“The rural market is not saturated, and there are always some people who can afford a private attorney,” Statz notes. “One woman lawyer I interviewed intimated that she just opens up the pipe and the money comes flowing out.”

Steve Peloquin echoes those sentiments. 

“I look around me and see a lot of small town lawyers doing pretty well,” says Peloquin. Attorneys “at the top of the food chain” in his territory can still command up to $250 an hour.

Finding a niche

The stereotypical country lawyer is a generalist who takes what comes through the door. But just as in urban practices, niche work is available to rural lawyers. In northeastern Minnesota, one such niche is cabin law. There are others, including some that are central to the issue of access to justice.

“My work is way different than a normal attorney,” says veteran tribal attorney Joe Plumer, who lives outside the north central Minnesota town of Cass Lake.

An enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Plumer grew up in Cleveland. His family left northern Minnesota in the wake of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, a federal law that was designed to induce Native Americans to leave their reservations.

Plumer got his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College and a JD from Case Western, but he never lost touch with the homeland. While in law school, he returned for summers to work in the mines on the western side of the Iron Range, just like his father, grandfather, and uncles before him.

After getting his law license, Plumer spent 11 years in the Twin Cities, the first six as an assistant state attorney general under Skip Humphrey and then, for five years, working for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. 

When he and his family decided to move north, Plumer set about building a practice that focused exclusively on Indian
law. He started out at Anishinabe Legal Service in Cass Lake, which provides civil representation to band members from three area tribes (Leech Lake, White Earth, and Red Lake) and, in 2007, he launched the Regional Native Public Defense Corporation.

But that just scratches the surface of the unusual practice Plumer has carved out for himself in Indian Country. He’s served stints working as tribal attorney for the three nearby Ojibwe bands; he currently serves as general counsel at Red Lake. Plumer is a tribal judge for the Mille Lacs band. He also has far-flung judgeships working for tribes in Iowa and California.

In Minnesota, much of his work revolves around tribal sovereignty issues, where he collaborates with fellow attorney and treaty rights activist Frank Bibeau. 

“We represent a lot of tribal members in off-reservation gathering rights cases,” Plumer says. “People call from all over. I’m like a clearinghouse as far as people’s calls.”

Like Plumer, Bibeau, who lives in Deer River and is a member of the White Earth band, has served a couple of stints at the legal director at Leech Lake. He now serves as in-house counsel for the environmental organization founded by Winona LaDuke, Honor the Earth, which recently notched a legal win in its high-profile battle against a proposed pipeline project.

But Bibeau sees his work (and Plumer’s) as part of a larger, long-term project to get the federal and state courts to adopt a more expansive view of treaty rights. And, looking around, Bibeau is not sure who will take up the cause when he finally retires. 

“I’m hoping one of Joe Plumer’s boys will follow up on what I’m doing. Because it might take years and years to get to the place we want to go,” he says.

A solution?

No one disputes that much of outstate Minnesota is running low on lawyers and, further, that the trend raises serious concerns about access to justice for rural residents both now and into the future. But there’s less consensus about what to do.

One possibility is to follow the lead of states like South Dakota, which offers incentives of up to $12,500 per year (for up to five years) to help young lawyers who agree to set up shop in rural counties.

Minnesota already has similar incentives in place for other professionals whose services have become increasingly scarce in much of the state, a cohort that includes large animal veterinarians, doctors, and nurses. 

But is there an appetite to help out lawyers?

Legislation floated at the Capitol in the 2019 session would have created a rural attorney loan repayment program. Under the terms of the bill (authored by Nick Frentz, a first-term DFL state representative and attorney from North Mankato), qualifying lawyers could receive up to $15,000 per year in assistance if they practice in a “designated rural location” and commit at least half their time to representing clients who earn no more than 400 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

The proposal didn’t make any headway this session. It didn’t even get a hearing. MSBA lobbyist Bryan Lake says that’s not unusual, given that more than 5,000 bills were filed at the Capitol this year. “A lot of bills take a few cycles to gain momentum,” he notes.

But at the same time, Lake recognizes that it could be a hard sell, given many ingrained misconceptions about lawyers and money. “There is a real recruiting issue out there and it’s a big problem,” notes Lake. “But there’s this wrong impression out there that all lawyers are rich. People don’t realize that a lot of young lawyers are struggling.”

 


MIKE MOSEDALE is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. A New York City native, he has written on a wide array of topics for numerous publications, including City Pages, the Star Tribune, Politics in Minnesota and, most recently, Minnesota Lawyer.