GENEVA, Neb. — It's early afternoon, when most young lawyers are still eyeing a stack of papers and maybe another cup of coffee.
But the 29-year-old partner at Heinisch & Lovegrove Law Office is pushing the throttle on a grain cart.
She may be a lawyer now, but Christin Lovegrove's days still belong to the fields. Each day during the fall, she switches her business attire for a sweatshirt and jeans to help her dad with the harvest. The ability to do that is a big piece of the reason she decided on rural law, ditching plans to travel the world.
Lovegrove knew as she approached graduation that of seven lawyers in her home county, a handful were nearing retirement. She returned for a job with longtime Geneva attorney Frank C. Heinisch, and the University of Nebraska law graduate has handled all kinds of cases: real estate disputes, probate cases and property law, many by herself.
She has already made partner, and she's done it while keeping a hand in the family farm and making her own schedule. She's in Geneva to stay.
“Everybody wants to escape their small town when they're 17 or 18,” she said. “But once you get out into the world, a lot of times what draws you back in is the community.”
It's stories like Lovegrove's that Nebraska's law schools and bar association are working to share in hopes that more young lawyers will choose to join a rural practice.
There are 34 counties with three or fewer lawyers, most in central and western Nebraska. Twelve have no attorneys at all. That's why the Nebraska State Bar Association is working closely with the NU College of Law and the Creighton University School of Law to link rural lawyers with law students. There is enough business to either find a firm where attorneys need help or to start a new firm, according to the bar's leader.
“There are a lot of lawyers who are baby boomers, and many of them would like to cut back or retire from their practice,” said Jane L. Schoenike, executive director of the bar association. “They're having difficulty finding lawyers to come in, help them get to know the client base, and take over. They don't want to leave their clients in the lurch.”
At Creighton, staffers work with the Nebraska and Iowa rural initiatives to bring in speakers who can make introductions, said Nancy Dickhute, director of professional relations and an assistant law professor at Creighton.
The Iowa bar is creating a website similar to Nebraska's, and Dickhute says the momentum is starting to swing in the direction of rural law. She knows a handful of recent graduates who have taken rural jobs in the past few months. At least 15 to 20 students show up at all their rural initiative talks.
“Do I think this trend will continue? All I can say is that I hope so,” Dickhute said.
The bar started arranging bus tours last year in hopes of making matches between attorneys in small towns and future grads. They've also built a Web page where rural firms can browse through résumés from job-seekers in hopes of bringing the two together — and showcasing the impact young lawyers could make in a small town that needs them.
The bar has also launched a post-graduation “gap class” that teaches practical, business-related problems and solutions for students thinking about going out on their own.
Lovegrove joined a few other rural attorneys this month for a panel discussion with law students at the NU law school in Lincoln. Most of the 30 students who came are at least considering small town practice.
They heard about the ups and downs (and how sometimes, the same issue can be both): You're thrown into lots of different kinds of cases, fast. You'll know everyone in town pretty quickly. As one of few attorneys in town, competition usually gives way to cooperation. You can make a flexible schedule to get involved in civic groups and the community.
For Seamus Kelly, an NU law student who grew up in Bartley, Neb., it's weighing the clear pros against potential cons when it comes to moving someplace more like home.
Would his wife find work? Would there be good health care close enough for their children?
And how does he go about making lasting connections with potential employers to even get to that point?
“It's hard enough finding jobs, anyway, and everyone keeps saying there are lots of rural jobs,” Kelly said. “Right now I don't know where those jobs are.”
Some of his classmates and professors are working with the bar on ways to change that.
About 30 students have joined the recently formed Greater Nebraska Connections organization, which plans to create connections between job seekers and rural law firms, where lead lawyers might be nearing retirement.
The learning curve can be daunting, said Katie Samples, a second-year student who helped found the group and plans to move to western Nebraska after graduation. That's where Samples wants to live, and she hopes she can help other students figure out they're up for the challenge, too.
“Rural firms will put associates in court in the first six months,” Samples said. “Some junior associates in Lincoln and Omaha don't go to court for six years.”
Rural lawyers might not make as much money as those junior associates in the city, Samples acknowledged. But she doesn't think they need as much to live on.
The South Dakota Legislature passed a law this year to address its shortage in hopes that money could make a difference.
About 65 percent of its attorneys are in four cities, according to the State Bar of South Dakota. To draw more of them into the less populated counties, an attorney can get payments that equal 90 percent of a year's tuition to the University of South Dakota School of Law for practicing five years in a rural county.
Schoenike of the Nebraska State Bar Association said there has been no push for a similar law in Nebraska, where almost 72 percent of the attorneys are in Lancaster and Douglas Counties. For now, the plan is to continue education and outreach about the need and to do a better job of making connections, she said.
Lovegrove hopes the message gets through and more small-town kids like her will give it a try, either in their hometowns or places like it. Just as her community is playing a big part in her success, Lovegrove says she and other young professionals can do their part to rejuvenate greater Nebraska. There's a desire to see small towns succeed, Lovegrove said.
“I think to have that tie means a lot.”
|Where lawyers are few and far between|
|Nebraska counties with 3 or fewer lawyers in 2012|