The heart of a rural practice’s service to the community is in providing effective legal assistance. Other ways in which the practice may serve a community, however, may be nearly as important and provide rural attorneys with a uniquely rewarding experience not open to their urban counterparts. For instance, the very presence of a law office in a community brings (1) jobs for a paralegal or other support staff, (2) demand for goods and services from the community to keep the office running, and (3) the money of local clients into the community when payment for legal services would otherwise go elsewhere. Moreover, money from other rural communities and even some “big city” clients from other states are often brought into rural communities through the conduit of a successful rural practice. The former dynamic, as described by Dr. Eric Scorsone (now with Michigan State’s Agricultural Economics Department) in his publication for the University of Kentucky entitled “Strategies for Community Economic Development,” is known as “import substitution.” The latter is called “export promotion.” Together, they form the basis of a community economic analysis. Dr. Scorsone provides an excellent introductory treatment to this important discipline. If you are interested in further reading, the fundamental guide for community economic analysis is “Community Economic Analysis: A How To Manual,” by Hustedde, Shaffer and Pulver.
As any rural lawyer knows, higher costs for services provided in their rural communities are often offset by the thought of knowing who the service provider is (and his or her quality of work) and that the dollars they spend with the local provider will circulate within the community much more than an outside provider or national chain. This dollar capture dynamic is not lost on rural practitioners. They recognize that the average dollar, when spent locally, is usually spent between 6 and 15 times before it leaves the community (depending upon the study). Of the one dollar spent at a national chain, only 20% of its value, on average, remains in the community, mostly in the wages paid to employees. Since many national chains do not see the merit in investing in rural communities, these communities become particularly efficient dollar generators if their citizens and businesses choose to buy local. South Dakota’s rural communities are particularly well-positioned for dollar capture considering the successes of agriculture and other extraction industries over the last five years. If an attorney has a particularly successful legal practice that is in demand from urban clients—patent law, anyone?—the dollar cycle is stoked even further.
So, the average rural attorney knows about his or her community—the businesses, the business owners, the community groups, the community’s aspirations, and what people want from their community. That attorney is also connected to many individuals within the community, and is aware of the fundamental dynamics shaping that community. The attorney also generates revenue by her or his presence in the community. In this ways, the rural attorney becomes the perfect catalyst for community and economic development.
Many rural attorneys, including PRP’s very own Shane Penfield, recognize this important synergy and have taken active roles in their county or community economic development organizations. Helping your small community develop can be one of the great benefits of a rural practice. Notice that the term used above is “community development,” not “economic development.” The economic component of development is important, and usually receives first billing, but a community will not secure its economic future unless all other aspects of the community—from housing to recreation, and from schools to community organizations and infrastructure—reflect the needs and aspirations of its citizens. Thus, in order to successfully practice community development, a rural attorney needs to know how to gather the feedback of, and harness the energies and interests of, the community’s residents.
A great place to start looking at the process of community development is to visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Rural Development webpage containing all of the basic materials on community development planning. The process comprises two phases: (1) strategic planning to determine what the communities needs, wants, and challenges in development are, and (2) implementation and benchmarking to begin implementing the strategic plan and to ensure goals are met.
Not only do rural attorneys have the potential to make a difference in the lives of their individual clients, they have the unique circumstance and skill set to be able to improve the lives of all residents within their community. Explore these development resources and begin to imagine the possibilities.