Karl Huber practiced law out of his house in Ladysmith for the first year after graduating from Marquette University Law School.
The 34-year-old attorney, who lived around the country while serving in the Air Force, took international law classes and studied abroad in Denmark before graduating in 2012. He wanted to work for the federal government.
But he ended up in the small northwestern Wisconsin city after his wife transferred there for her job with Rockwell Automation Inc. In a town with nothing but solo attorneys, Huber had no option but to start his own firm. He started out representing area residents in criminal and divorce cases.
“I never intended to do family law or criminal law,” Huber, who grew up about two hours north of Ladysmith, said. “I never planned on doing a small-town solo law firm.”
He is one of five attorneys who work in Ladysmith. In addition to his solo practice, he now works as a part-time assistant district attorney for Rusk County.
“It was pretty much be solo or don’t be a lawyer,” Huber said.
He is quick to point out that, although it may not be what he planned to do when he graduated, it works. His workload is steady, Huber said, and he moved into his own office in August.
Still, Huber’s path is uncommon. Officials with Marquette and the University of Wisconsin Law School said the number of graduates who move to rural Wisconsin to go into private practice has declined for several years.
The Taco Bell dilemma
Graduates gravitate toward larger cities that are expected to provide more job opportunities and an active social life.
In Wisconsin, that usually means Milwaukee and Madison.
“People may not want to be in an area where they can’t go to Taco Bell at midnight,” said Kevin Klein, a former State Bar of Wisconsin president and solo practitioner in Phillips who has positioned himself as a small-town legal advocate.
But Klein and others said there also is a misconception about breaking into small-town work.
Paul Katzman, assistant dean for career planning at Marquette’s law school, said there is a perception among graduates that there are not many opportunities to work as private attorneys in places such as Rhinelander and Wautoma.
To some extent that is true, he said, because there never will be “as many potential opportunities in the smaller markets.”
But there is work available in small areas, said Michael Keller, assistant dean for career and professional development at UW’s law school. It’s just a tougher sell for a young attorney who already has heard about the possible obstacles, he said, from too few clients to simply meeting new friends.
But the reality can surprise those who take the time to look, Keller said.
“I think we could do very well,” he said, “if we could find people willing to go out.”
Keller said UW offers classes on the business aspect of starting a solo practice. And a State Bar committee has recommended that the bar’s Board of Governors approve a small business incubator that would place “a particular emphasis in helping young lawyers who are hanging out their own shingle.”
Still, according to Marquette Law Professor Gordon Hylton, “What it takes to go to a small town and build a public life and a practice doesn’t seem to appeal to contemporary law students.”
In South Dakota, for example, there are so few attorneys willing to work in small towns that the state Legislature in 2013 passed a law to offer incentive pay to up to 16 attorneys who pledge to practice in rural areas for five years.
No similar laws are under consideration in Wisconsin. But the trend is consistent across the country, Hylton said.
And given the increasing concern about student debt, which a recent State Bar of Wisconsin survey found weighed heavily on the minds of recent law school graduates, the prospect of starting a solo practice in a small town doesn’t seem so great, he said.
“Debt is a major factor,” Hylton said, “in the notion that, ‘I can’t go to Columbia County, Wisconsin, and make enough money in the first five years to pay off my loans.’”
Small but steady
Ladysmith has similar limitations. The nearest sizeable city is Eau Claire, and that is more than an hour away.
“I believe this is not the real world,” said Allen Kenyon, an attorney who has been in Ladysmith for more than 35 years. “There is one traffic light, no serious crime. Much of what we see in court is dumb stuff.”
When Kenyon moved there, he said, there were eight attorneys in the city. Now there are three others besides himself and Huber.
Kenyon said he occasionally gets calls from soon-to-be or recent graduates. They ask if “they would be able to make a decent living off the bat.”
Kenyon said he tells them, “That’s not going to happen.”
“It takes a while to develop the practice,” he said.
But it is possible. Randy Kraft, spokesman for the State Public Defender, said several areas of the state do not have local attorneys who are able or willing to take cases if the office has a conflict.
That can mean that an appointed attorney, who is paid at a rate of $40 per hour, often has to travel, at a rate of $25 per hour, simply to appear for a motion hearing.
Klein said taking those appointments is an option when a new attorney moves to a new town. It may not be the most money, he said, but at least it can be a source of income while building a practice.
That is what Huber did. He took SPD cases to help raise his profile and earn money while he slowly built his practice. Eventually, he said, he started taking on more private clients and could work even more then he is, if he wanted to.
“I think I could be extremely busy,” Huber said. “I don’t advertise. I don’t do marketing.”
Huber, whose office is a small white house across the street from the courthouse, said his workload is sufficient. With a daughter in daycare just down the street and a home about five minutes away, he said he is content for the time being.
“I knew what I was getting into when I moved into a northern Wisconsin town,” Huber said. “I am 34, have a wife and a kid. I’m OK with a small town.”Follow @eheisigWLJ