When he earned a J.D. from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities Law School in spring 2011, Jeff Woltjen desperately wanted to work in the Twin Cities. But several months after graduating, he left the job at an ambulance-chasing Minneapolis law firm that he had held during school. Realizing his degree was "very fungible" and that he needed a job immediately, Woltjen compromised on working in a big city, and in February 2012, landed a job as a clerk for a district judge in Hibbing, Minn., a rural mining town of about 16,000.
Woltjen appears to be part of what may be a growing trend of law school graduates going the way of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and seeking work in small, rural markets, as a recent Wall Street Journal article reported. A "small but growing number" of Midwestern law schools are encouraging students not to be seduced by "the lure of high-paying, big-city law firms" and to consider rural markets instead, where salaries can be in the "low-to-mid-five figures," according to the article.
Those numbers may be troubling to some newly minted lawyers, whose debt can exceed six figures. "I have no realistic expectations of making dents in my student loans," says Woltjen, whose state-set salary is $43,000 per year. "My goal is to broaden my experience and network while simply surviving financially."
Woltjen doesn't plan to stay in his current role long term, but is willing to "grind out two years" to keep himself ahead of the thousands of graduates whose credentials resemble his. Asked if he recommends rural jobs to other lawyers, Woltjen says it boils down to the desire to practice law.
"I believe J.D.'s who graduate and fail to find permanent, stable employment within a year are doomed to a career of contract work and public interest positions," Woltjen says. "As soon as the next year of J.D.'s graduates, every traditional legal employer—and especially the large firms—will look at you as damaged goods. I was willing to work in Alaska before I was going to let this happen to me. And it still might."
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Smaller legal markets, which imply entirely different types of work than their big city counterparts, do come with lower paychecks, but those salaries, if taken out of context, can be red herrings, says Rory O'Sullivan, who runs his own law practice in Spring Valley, Wisc. (population 1,276).
"In the legal field, the most significant [salary] differences are between the very large firms and the rest of the field," O'Sullivan says.
Julia Claire Shapiro, a cofounder of Hire an Esquire, a Philadelphia-based matchmaking service between law firms and freelance attorneys, says recent law graduates understand they're going to have to compromise on salary. "Young attorneys graduating with crushing debt and awful job prospects are in survival mode, not lifestyle mode," she says.
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The 600 lawyers Shapiro's company works with, particularly the young ones, will go "just about anywhere," even for temporary work.
"Attorneys in the Delaware Valley will commute to rural areas of Pennsylvania for long document-review projects [and] attorneys adjacent to New York City will travel to upstate New York to act as local counsel for court appearances and foreclosure," she says.
Recent J.D.'s even seem to be pursuing low-paying positions in urban areas. A job at a small firm in Boston posted on the website of Boston College's Law School in late May 2012, for example, drew 32 applications within the first week, despite a salary of just $10,000 per year, Boston Business Journal reported.
"This isn't a fluke," Shapiro says. "Young attorneys walking into our office with decent to impressive résumés have multiple jobs—a legal job that pays poverty wages to gain the practical skills law school didn't teach, and another job that still can't pay the bills."
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