Rural Lawyers Tout Big Possibilities in Small Towns

By Kirby Lee Davis

Three recent deaths have left District Court Judge Michael D. DeBerry with only two attorneys serving one of the areas he covers — and both surviving practitioners are 65 years old or older.

“We need lawyers in southeastern Oklahoma,” said DeBerry, who serves McCurtain, Choctaw and Pushmataha counties. “Antlers is dying, and Hugo is dying. We really need lawyers.”

Like many states, Oklahoma faces a growing shortage of legal help in its rural communities, with more needs expected as aging lawyers retire or pass on. While estimating demand remains difficult, with many attorneys’ careers stretching past traditional retirement age, the Oklahoma Bar Association Law Schools Committee touted the broad rural opportunities to 40 University of Tulsa students Friday.

“There are attorneys out there who, like Bruce, are covered with work, because there’s only three or four attorneys in town, and they have been there forever,” said Dru Tate, a 2010 TU law school grad who works at Bruce Coker and Associates of Okemah. “They don’t get a lot of students fresh out of law school.”

Many attorneys spoke warmly of the advantages rural markets provide.

“For me, it’s the quality of life,” said 2012 TU law school graduate Ryan Olsen, who started with Vinita’s Logan and Lowry as an intern and never left.

An avid hunter and fisher, he said he appreciates that firm’s low-key atmosphere and one-minute commute from his rural home.

“You just never know what’s going to walk in the door,” he said of his clients’ needs, which range from family and criminal law to coal-mining legislation and health care. “I’ve really enjoyed the variety of things I do every day.”

Several attorneys said the rural workload remains quite steady, with a wide variety of cases readily available.

“We can do almost anything you want to do, other than securities, mergers and acquisitions,” said David Butler, a member of the Enid firm Mitchell and DeClerck.

Marion Fry, a 1999 TU graduate, appreciated his opportunities, both as assistant district attorney in LeFlore County and a Choctaw Nation Court of Appeals judge.

“It’s just like being in a big town,” he said of his Poteau posts. “People in small towns need attorneys just like people do in large cities. I think you’re missing an opportunity if you don’t think about small-town Oklahoma.”

Newly married, with a baby on the way, Tate appreciated the flexibility provided by Coker’s law firm.

“It turned into the perfect job for me,” she said. “I do drive to Okemah two days a week. The other days I work from home.”

Tate said many potential positions may be identified by simply surveying existing practitioners and their ages. Several attorneys recommended opening friendly relations with rural OBA chapters, judges and their clerks to learn local needs and cultures.

“Some of the valuable insight you may get would be the cases you want to stay away from, if you know what I mean,” Tate said.

Butler urged students to study demographic resources like the Oklahoma Directory of Lawyers to discover places such as Fairview, which he said has one attorney 86 years old, one 70 and one in his 40s.

“Be persistent,” said Butler. “Do your research. Learn about the community. Learn about the lawyers who are there. You can find a spot.”

Tate touted the non-competitive environment among rural lawyers, with many willing to farm out business to new practices, associates or partners.

“They have more business than they can handle,” said retired Ardmore District Judge Tom Walker, noting some rural attorneys may be more willing to rent or share office space than take on an associate or partner.

“You’ve then got the best of both worlds,” he said. “You have the knowledge of an experienced attorney, but you’re also on your own.”

While salaries may trail some urban positions, several attorneys said earnings can still be quite rewarding. A rural area’s lower cost of living balances out some salary differences, Walker said.

“Small towns are great,” Fry said. “You get to know people, too. The people are great. They take time to listen to you. They care about you. They want to know how you are. Not how you are, but how you are, really.”

Three recent deaths have left District Court Judge Michael D. DeBerry with only two attorneys serving one of the areas he covers — and both surviving practitioners are 65 years old or older.

“We need lawyers in southeastern Oklahoma,” said DeBerry, who serves McCurtain, Choctaw and Pushmataha counties. “Antlers is dying, and Hugo is dying. We really need lawyers.”

Like many states, Oklahoma faces a growing shortage of legal help in its rural communities, with more needs expected as aging lawyers retire or pass on. While estimating demand remains difficult, with many attorneys’ careers stretching past traditional retirement age, the Oklahoma Bar Association Law Schools Committee touted the broad rural opportunities to 40 University of Tulsa students Friday.

“There are attorneys out there who, like Bruce, are covered with work, because there’s only three or four attorneys in town, and they have been there forever,” said Dru Tate, a 2010 TU law school grad who works at Bruce Coker and Associates of Okemah. “They don’t get a lot of students fresh out of law school.”

Many attorneys spoke warmly of the advantages rural markets provide.

“For me, it’s the quality of life,” said 2012 TU law school graduate Ryan Olsen, who started with Vinita’s Logan and Lowry as an intern and never left.

An avid hunter and fisher, he said he appreciates that firm’s low-key atmosphere and one-minute commute from his rural home.

“You just never know what’s going to walk in the door,” he said of his clients’ needs, which range from family and criminal law to coal-mining legislation and health care. “I’ve really enjoyed the variety of things I do every day.”

Several attorneys said the rural workload remains quite steady, with a wide variety of cases readily available.

“We can do almost anything you want to do, other than securities, mergers and acquisitions,” said David Butler, a member of the Enid firm Mitchell and DeClerck.

Marion Fry, a 1999 TU graduate, appreciated his opportunities, both as assistant district attorney in LeFlore County and a Choctaw Nation Court of Appeals judge.

“It’s just like being in a big town,” he said of his Poteau posts. “People in small towns need attorneys just like people do in large cities. I think you’re missing an opportunity if you don’t think about small-town Oklahoma.”

Newly married, with a baby on the way, Tate appreciated the flexibility provided by Coker’s law firm.

“It turned into the perfect job for me,” she said. “I do drive to Okemah two days a week. The other days I work from home.”
Tate said many potential positions may be identified by simply surveying existing practitioners and their ages. Several attorneys recommended opening friendly relations with rural OBA chapters, judges and their clerks to learn local needs and cultures.

“Some of the valuable insight you may get would be the cases you want to stay away from, if you know what I mean,” Tate said.

Butler urged students to study demographic resources like the Oklahoma Directory of Lawyers to discover places such as Fairview, which he said has one attorney 86 years old, one 70 and one in his 40s.

“Be persistent,” said Butler. “Do your research. Learn about the community. Learn about the lawyers who are there. You can find a spot.”

Tate touted the non-competitive environment among rural lawyers, with many willing to farm out business to new practices, associates or partners.

“They have more business than they can handle,” said retired Ardmore District Judge Tom Walker, noting some rural attorneys may be more willing to rent or share office space than take on an associate or partner.

“You’ve then got the best of both worlds,” he said. “You have the knowledge of an experienced attorney, but you’re also on your own.”

While salaries may trail some urban positions, several attorneys said earnings can still be quite rewarding. A rural area’s lower cost of living balances out some salary differences, Walker said.

“Small towns are great,” Fry said. “You get to know people, too. The people are great. They take time to listen to you. They care about you. They want to know how you are. Not how you are, but how you are, really.”

Kirby Lee Davis is the Tulsa bureau chief for The Journal Record. This article, originally published in The Journal Record March 31, 2014 issue, is reprinted with permission from the publisher.





Webcast encores are available for OBA/CLE seminars. View the catalog and sign up today.