Courtney Graff was just 18 months out of law school when she bought her firm.
“I was given a gift,” said Graff, owner of Schmiege & Graff Law Office, in Medford. “It was a lot of work, but it was a gift. I got to look at a functioning system and tweak it, but I didn’t have to start from the ground up. It wasn’t my plan. But I was fortunate, and I ended up loving what I do.”
She also ended up loving where she’s at — an arguably tiny town along Highway 13 in Taylor County. Medford is best known as the home of Weather Shield, Tombstone pizza and a surprising number of plumbers, electricians and other entrepreneurs.
After living in Minnesota, Texas and Florida, Graff acknowledged it’s not necessarily the place where she expected to land.
But the 4,236 people of the north-central Wisconsin town, just 45 minutes south of her even smaller hometown of Phillips, proved a strong selling point as Graff searched for a place to start her practice.
“I’ve lived in enough other places to know the general community feel of northern Wisconsin is just so unique,” Graff said. “That’s what drew me back. That’s what I want to be a part of.”
So she did what few attorneys — only 2 percent throughout the country, by some estimates — choose to do: She set up shop in a small town.
The opportunity meant a few changes.
She ceased using her middle initial in official displays of her name, for instance. (It’s L, in case you’re wondering.)
“Around here people think it’s pretentious,” Graff said. “We really got a lot of feedback about that.”
She also gave up being able to go regularly to big-city staples such as Target and Panera.
And then there have been difficulties that come from her not exactly fitting the mold of what many still think of when they picture a small-town lawyer.
“I’m not an old man,” laughed Graff, who leads a three-attorney general practice firm with a focus on municipal law. “I’m 30. I started four years ago. I’m 5-foot-4. I have a friendly personality. I look young. And, I think, in this type of community people are used to having the attorney they’ve had for 40 years or they think of an attorney and they think of a man.”
But, Graff said, she’s also gained so much — and not just because only four years into her legal career she already has her own firm.
Jenna Gill, an associate attorney with Russell Law Offices in Darlington, agreed.
“It’s the real thing,” Gill said. “You practice. You take your own cases. You’re in the courtroom. You’re going to get really valuable experience doing your own trials, being before the judges and working with other attorneys.”
It’s a secret Gill has eagerly shared since she began practicing in January 2012, and one she learned early on in Darlington, a town of fewer than 1,000 about 25 minutes north of the Iowa state line and the place Gill has called home nearly her entire life.
“We’re only an hour from Madison; there are so many small communities that are only an hour from Milwaukee or an hour from Madison,” said Gill, whose firm deals primarily with business and finance law, as well as real estate, estate planning and family law. “But the hard part — and one of the advantages, too — is it’s really hard to get people to come to some of these areas. So, growing up, I knew I wanted to be an attorney and that places like this are always lacking attorneys. That’s why I came back. There was a need.”
It’s a need Steve Lucareli first began to appreciate nearly 25 years ago when he moved from Racine to the small city of Eagle River, and one that has only grown as the number of attorneys in the far northern resort town has dwindled in recent years.
“There are five of us practicing,” Lucareli said. “Of the five, two of us are dealing with some serious health issues and two of them are older than I am. So, right now, there are no young lawyers practicing law in Eagle River.”
And, by young, he means almost old enough to draw Social Security.
“I’m 61, and I’m the youngest lawyer left practicing in Eagle River right now,” Lucareli said.
The absence of young lawyers is unexpected, Lucareli said, especially since he feels as if he’s had a pretty good career.
“We aren’t living an isolated life here,” he said.
There are about 21,000 people living in the county, a number that has been known to nearly quadruple depending on the season. And although just 1,398 people officially live in Eagle River, the city is the county seat, which means it is home to the county courthouse.
Eagle River is not alone in its low numbers. Law firms in nearby Rhinelander, Minocqua and even Appleton are struggling to attract lawyers.
“They are talking to lawyers who are two and three years out of law school, who still don’t have a steady job, and yet they don’t want to move from Madison and Milwaukee,” Lucareli said. “Your viability in the market diminishes every year you’re not employed. At some point, you should say, ‘I could move and be employed.’ A young person could move to Rhinelander and pick whatever area they want to practice in and build a law firm. The market is wide open here.”
Graff understands the reluctance.
“My pros might be other people’s cons,” she said.
For instance, it takes Graff just two minutes to get to work. That proximity is a tremendous advantage, yet she also finds herself struggling to maintain a separation between her personal and professional lives.
“But I grew up in a small town, so I know how it works,” Graff added. “I know how to navigate the social scene and understand everything is going to reflect on me professionally. And I like how they see me on the library board or the charity board. It’s a double-edged sword, but I like that it’s intermingled.”
It’s the same for Gill.
She said it can be easier to strike a balance between life and work in a small town than somewhere bigger. She also enjoys the opportunity she has to help people she knows in a place that she loves.
But going out for a fish fry, even running to the grocery store, can lead to sometimes exhausting questions and conversations.
“You know so much about everyone, and in small towns people talk,” Gill said. “You maintain your confidentiality, but people know you’re an attorney. They say, ‘I’ve got a ticket. I’ve got this question.’ You have an emotional connection because you know people.”
The idea that being a small-town lawyer means fewer opportunities for career-building also seems to be a reason many in the profession prefer bigger cities, Graff said.
“Some people might think if they practice in a small town they’re missing out on the professional groups, but I am only several years into being an attorney and I’m involved with the State Bar,” Graff said. “I’m on the administrative and local-government section. I’m on the planning committee for one of the tracks for solo and small-firm conference. I’m involved with planning CLEs.
And that’s just me.”
Lucareli said he has no reason to believe his career hit a dead end when he chose to move north for a position in the Marathon County District Attorney’s office in 1988.
Before that, he had spent four years as an assistant prosecutor in Wausau and then was elected district attorney for Vilas County. When he lost in his attempt at re-election two years later, he took appointments as a special prosecutor in Marinette County. His time there saw him work on about 50 drug cases over the course of two years. A similar appointment in Lincoln County led to his handling an employment dispute in the district attorney’s office.
“And while I was doing that my phone was starting to ring here with private legal matters,” Lucareli said.
He’s also a board member of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a former board member of the Wisconsin Association for Justice and a graduate of the Trial Lawyers College.
“Networking has helped,” Lucareli said. “It’s a bridge between a small-town practice and a big-city practice.”
It’s part of the reason Graff encourages young attorneys to, at least, have a conversation about the opportunities presented by small towns.
“Just start making some calls,” Graff said. “And your first call should be to an attorney in that town. Ask who the youngest person in the profession is and see how they got started.”
They might be surprised what they find, Gill said.
“We are here. We are making it work, and it’s going great.”