ANAMOSA — Douglas and Janice Secrist sat in the Knuth Law Office to finalize their last will and testament, entrusting the certification to Adrian Knuth, a lawyer they've worked with for 25 years.
Not surprising, there are no lawyers working in their unincorporated hometown of Viola. But considering their rural location, having legal services 15 minutes away is a luxury these days, and one some fear will become more concentrated in metros as aging attorneys retire.
“It's just like having your own grocery story,” Knuth said. “It's a quality of life. You start losing professional services. Then you lose products and providers.
“You start seeing the vibrancy of your community go downhill.”
Knuth's practice, which he's had since 1978, provides the unheralded but necessary legal services that help a small community run smoothly — business formations, real estate closings, estate planning, tax preparation, probate and family law.
Knuth is among a number of baby-boomer-aged lawyers serving rural areas, and their practices face uncertainty as they think about retirement. Young lawyers are choosing big firms in big cities, leaving small-town lawyers scrambling for successors, working longer or, ultimately, closing decades-old practices for good.
Residents face the prospect of traveling further and further for basic legal needs.
"It has been difficult and will continue to be difficult to attract young practitioners to rural law practices," said Lowell Dendinger, adding there are fewer lawyers practicing in Tipton than when he began in 1972.
As lawyers such as Dendinger and Knuth look toward retirement, they think about who will meet the needs of their clients, many of whom these attorneys have represented for decades.
"I am not as concerned now as 10 years from now, and then will it be too late?" wondered Phil Garland, a lawyer in Garner and chairman of the Iowa Bar Association's Rural Practice Committee.
Garland has been mapping Iowa's lawyers and county populations by comparing figures from 35 years ago with today, and flagging those lawyers aged 60 and over today. His hope is to document the state of legal services in rural Iowa.
Of Iowa's 7,142 attorneys with active licenses in good standing, nearly two-thirds are based in 10 cities, led by Des Moines with 2,018 and Cedar Rapids with 628, according to a database of lawyers managed by the Iowa judicial branch Office of Professional Regulation.
Knuth is one of just nine lawyers in Anamosa.
Other smaller communities have seen their legal services depleted as well:
l Tipton has seven lawyers
l Monticello six
l West Liberty five
l Dyersville four
l Mount Vernon and Kalona have three.
Mechanicsville, Wyoming, Springville, Central City, Cascade and too many more to list have none, according to the database.
Garland annually visits law schools at University of Iowa, Drake University and Creighton University to share information, gather resumes and make connections with would be employers. He has been encouraging lawyers older than 60 to participate in the program.
"Some lawyers that I had contact with four years ago were not interested in hiring, but now at least looking and may hire in the future," said Garland, adding it could be due to the additional attention paid to the issue recently.
Debt is a major factor in the recruiting challenge. Bigger cities offer the allure of bigger firms that can pay higher salaries, as well as access to entertainment and other young professionals.
Students leave school owing much more than ever.
Among University of Iowa's 2014 graduating class with loans, average debt was $92,373, according to the school. Entering students at Drake anticipate graduating with $200,000 to pay back, Garland said.
Graduates aren't keen on paying overhead for rent in a rural practice, or the prospect of shouldering a firm's obligations while repaying their own student debt when the lead attorney retires, he said.
The issue isn't unique to Iowa, and some states have taken countermeasures.
In South Dakota, the state legislature approved a recruitment-assistance program that can pay graduates $60,000 over five years, or 90 percent of tuition at the University of South Dakota, if they practice in an underserved area.
Knuth has faced this challenge first hand.
He'd been grooming his daughter, Emily, for six years to hopefully take over the law practice someday. He'd share his legal knowledge, while she was far more adept at using new technology for research, he said.
The future seemed to be addressed, or so he thought. But late last year his daughter moved to a larger firm in Des Moines, closer to where her husband grew up.
Back to the drawing board for Knuth.
Knuth advertised for an associate, expecting a pool of 10 to 15 applicants. Instead, six people applied and just two interviewed.
Michael Lang, 32, a 2014 Drake Law School graduate, ultimately landed the job, and Knuth is hopeful he sticks around. Lang is studying for the Iowa Bar while learning the practice.
If successful, Lang can begin taking his own clients and he hopes to expand into criminal law.
Originally from Emmetsburg, Lang is familiar with the small-town setting and, professionally speaking, a small practice offers a greater breadth of law-to-practice compared to bigger city where lawyers are more specialized.
“It's hard to read 10 years into the future, but I could see myself here,” Lang said. “In Des Moines, I'd be just another face. Here, I'm that guy who works in Knuth law office.
“They recognize me as part of the community."
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