The life of a rural lawyer is a little like walking into that neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name, because word-of-mouth in a small town spreads faster than butter on a hot Iowa day.
For two young lawyers — Cassie Wolfgram in Vinton and Brent Lechtenberg in Traer — that recognition has led to clients and a steady income. Rural Iowa wins, too, because many small towns don’t have lawyers or some are retiring and not many want to take their place.
Wolfgram and Lechtenberg had a plan after they graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law last year and realized bigger firms weren’t hiring or may not be the right fit for them. They joined existing small-town practices with the perks of instant clients who supply referrals, a non-management role and two great mentors to guide and help them as they learn how to be lawyers.
The Iowa Bar Association and Philip Garland, co-chairman of the bar’s rural practices committee, started a push this year, with help from the UI law school and Drake Law School, to place young graduates or law students in summer clerkships to see if they’re a fit for a small town. The program has placed eight students this summer, with the hope to place more next year.
Garland said there are several towns like Cascade without a lawyer and there’s only one in Emmetsburg to help people get basic legal services, such as a house sale or setting up a will. All of Adams County has only two lawyers, and several other counties have three or four.
Wolfgram, 25, and Lechtenberg, 26, weren’t part of that program, but they are two who were willing to work in rural areas. After being in practice a year, they say they are busy and able to make a good living.
Wolfgram, with Fischer Law, was a law clerk in Johnson and Dubuque counties while in school and handled mostly criminal cases. Now she’s getting experience in other areas of law because Fischer is a general practice. The firm mostly handles wills, estate planning, family law, some criminal and civil cases.
“I like it here,” said Wolfgram, who lives in Cedar Rapids. “I’ve gotten more experience here, and at a bigger firm it would be less hands-on. There’s also less pressure and less time to put in to get a partnership. At a bigger firm, you would have to work 60 to 80 hours a week, and I have a family. I have a 19-month-old.”
Wolfgram said she was concerned about burnout in the legal profession and wanted some place she could make a career that balanced her personal and professional life.
Lechtenberg grew up in the small town of Calmar, so he never considered working in a large city. He wanted to join an established firm, like Bauch Law Firm in Traer. The firm was established in 1956 by John Bauch, who died last year, and his brother Jared Bauch, attorney and current owner, joined in 1969.
“I live three blocks away and walk to work every day,” Lechtenberg said. “I have a lot of flexibility that I probably wouldn’t have at a big firm.”
Bauch is also a general practice and mostly handles real estate, probate, estate planning, family law, taxes and some criminal cases, such as domestic abuse, assaults, drugs and burglaries.
Lechtenberg said joining Bauch was a great opportunity, because Jared Bauch plans to retire in five years or so and was looking for someone to take over the business.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in a general practice like this,” Jared Bauch said. “You develop a reputation and get a lot of word-of-mouth business, repeat clients. It usually helps to get involved in the community.”
John Fischer, Wolfgram’s managing partner who has been practicing in Vinton since 1979, said small towns welcome talented professionals staying in the community. One of the benefits of a small-town practice is that a lawyer gains some diverse experience with a variety of cases.
Fischer and Bauch said the only downside could be pay when starting out in a small-town practice. The salary is likely much less than at a large firm, but as the client base grows, so does the income.