Law SchoolNews

Law graduates turning to smaller communities might be onto something

If TV is any indication, people straight out of law school are immediately whisked away to some major metropolitan area — New York or Chicago, maybe, or perhaps even D.C. Even outside of TV, it seems to make sense to head for larger urban centers. Locally, the destination of choice would be Portland.

However, some recent law school graduates can’t find work up north or further abroad, with the law field falling victim to the struggling economy just like any other. Others simply don’t like cities. For both groups, practicing law in smaller communities is their way forward. Annette Smith, a 2010 graduate from the University of Oregon’s law program, was one of the latter.

“I actually had a clerkship for a law firm in Portland during the summer between my first and second year of law school,” Smith said. But it wasn’t a fit for her. The stresses of city life, from frenetic activity to driving and city traffic, wasn’t her thing.

“I sort of hated living in a big city,” she said. “I wasn’t very interested in seeking employment in Portland.”

She had hoped to find work in Eugene. However, she wanted to practice juvenile law. It had been her passion since childhood, when her teenaged mother had struggled to raise two other siblings and herself. The adversity she went through gave her compassion for children living in similar situations, she said, and was one of the main reasons she entered law — to speak on their behalf.

Unfortunately, the only juvenile law job she could find was located in Roseburg, Ore. So, after a brief stint as a clerk with the Lane County Circuit Court, she joined the Arneson Group, a Roseburg-based law firm. As it turned out, she said, working in a smaller community wasn’t so bad.

“I’m doing exactly the kind of law I wanted to do, and that makes me feel very lucky,” she said, explaining that she often joked with her boss that it was her dream job, just in the wrong city. Still, being able to make that trade-off in order to do what she loves was worth it. “A lot of my peers don’t have that luxury or opportunity.”

Her colleague at the Arneson Group, Thomas Bernier — himself a 1977 graduate from the University of Oregon Law School – agrees with her when it comes to Roseburg not being such a terrible place to practice law. He would go so far to say that it has decided advantages over working in a larger community.

“Different counties have different (legal) cultures,” Bernier said, explaining that some of the larger ones are far more cut-throat than the culture that permeates the Douglas County legal community, including even Lane County. In contrast, the Douglas legal culture is downright friendly.

“The judges know you personally, and you know them. You know all the other lawyers in town, too.”

The advantages of that arrangement are myriad, according to Bernier. Knowing judges personally also means knowing how they’ll treat cases, allowing local lawyers the chance to work with them from the start, rather than having to guess at how individual judges operate.

Being on friendly terms with other lawyers in the area is equally useful, he said. It allows for a relatively free flow of information; if one lawyer doesn’t know the answer to a legal question being asked by a client, he probably knows someone who does and who’s willing to share. That culture can also very much benefit recently graduated students seeking to find meaningful employment, he said.

“In smaller communities, it’s much easier to open your own shop,” he said, adding that it should definitely be considered by students when they’re thinking of where they plan on practicing after they leave the University of Oregon.“I don’t know that you can do that in a big city, because people don’t know you.”

So, for those law students hoping to strike out on their own, maybe a small community practice is worth looking into.

“With a lot of work, you can make it,” Bernier said.

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