Most attorneys daydream about practicing for a large Wall Street firm or multinational corporation based in a large city. But beneath the facade of big city lawyering and lavish client cocktail parties, could practicing law in a smaller community potentially provide a talented lawyer with better career enrichment opportunities?
When it comes to better career opportunities for attorneys, it all boils down to practice preferences and lifestyle priorities, especially for lawyers with families. There are several reasons why a smaller market may be a more fulfilling place for an attorney to practice, including cost-of-living, ease of commuting, job benefits and flexibility, and client relationship building. However, larger cities gain the advantage when you are talking in strict terms of higher paying jobs and overall growth in number of jobs.
Washington, DC has one attorney for every 12 residents, while flyover states, like Nebraska and South Dakota, have several counties with no lawyers at all. But people need legal representation no matter where they live. A smaller town or city with less competition will usually provide a newly relocated lawyer with more client opportunities than will a large metropolitan area that’s saturated with attorneys. If corporate law is more your forte, many Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin or Charlotte, N.C.
This is a major factor for lawyers with families, or attorneys fresh out of law school who are paying down student loans. And, if you’re right out of law school and get hired on by a big East Coast firm, don’t be surprised if you’re making $20 an hour reviewing legal documents for the firm’s partners. A growing city like Nashville, Tennessee has a cosmopolitan feel with a cost-of-living appreciably less than the national average. Not only can you earn a decent living there as an attorney, you’ll also be able to afford a nicer house compared to New York or L.A.
Let’s say you have a chance to practice tax law in Columbus, Ohio. The average base pay for an attorney practicing there is over $94,000 per year, and its cost-of-living index falls below the national average. In addition, the city’s population is only 879,000, so you’ll probably run into some of your clients at Ohio State games or while relaxing downtown. This will give you the chance to build those relationships outside the workplace, an opportunity that’s rarely available when living in an area with millions of inhabitants.
If you’ve ever lived in a large city like Atlanta or Chicago, those work commutes are killers when it comes to a healthy work/life balance. Living and working in a smaller city means shorter commutes, less stress and more family time. Even using the public transportation system in a community like Austin, Texas beats the constant delays while riding the “L” in Chicago or subway in New York. In fact, if you practice in a smaller city like Madison or Columbus, you can easily travel by car, or even a bike, to the office within minutes.
Let’s face it, big-city law practices can get very specialized, routine and boring. On the other hand, while practicing in a small city or rural town you’ll have the opportunity to be more of a general practitioner. This could mean your own firm with practice areas encompassing family law, criminal law, tax law, estate planning, personal injury and bankruptcy. If you do decide later that a big city firm is more to your liking, you’ll have experience in all these practice areas to showcase on your resume.
Deciding What’s Right for You
When making an important career decision that involves relocating, it’s wise to sit down first and look at all the pros and cons of doing so. Here are some of the criteria to consider:
- Average lawyer base pay
- Cost-of-living index
- Professional organizations and associations
- Crime rate and quality of schools
- Local attractions and amenities
- Employment potential (law job density, availability, resident-to-lawyer ratio, etc.
In the end, don’t forget to factor in the overall quality-of-life for you and your family. Although it’s true that landing a dream job at that big Wall Street firm will provide you with more zeros on your paycheck, there’s more to life than just money!
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