Big Fish, Small Ponds

The challenges and rewards of having a practice in rural Wisconsin

Published in 2021 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Mark Schaaf on November 16, 2021


When Matthew Lein wants to unwind after a long day of work, he doesn’t have to go far. 

Lein, 37, a partner at his family’s Lein Law Offices in Hayward, works a lot, particularly on injury and consumer law. But one Sunday, he needed a break.

“I popped into my car and went out to the family farm and shot shotguns for about a half an hour,” says Lein, who returned to his hometown after finishing Marquette Law School in 2011. “You can’t do that in the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison.”

Practicing law in a small town offers many advantages that rural attorneys say are overlooked: helping neighbors, handling a wide variety of cases and enjoying lifestyle perks. The six attorneys we spoke with also challenged what they say are misconceptions about topics like compensation and types of cases. 

Perceptions of small-town lawyer life often start in law school, attorneys say. While many rural attorneys grew up in small towns and are familiar with the life that rural areas afford, others have never been exposed to the possibilities of working in smaller communities.

“Law school culture to me was, ‘get a big-firm job,’” says Tyler Wickman of Anich, Wickman & Lindsey in Ashland. 

“It never dawned on [the students] that you could do this kind of work out here,” John Orton, of Curran Law Office in Mauston, says of law school students at Marquette and the University of Wisconsin. “We see the same interesting, complicated work that people do in the city. Truth be told, there is a huge volume of great legal work available in rural areas, much of which flows into the cities only because there aren’t enough rural lawyers.” 

Small-Town Life

Wickman finished third in his class at Marquette and had opportunities to work at a large Milwaukee firm. But cultural dynamics drew him back to his hometown. “I like the little things in life. I like to go home for lunch. I don’t like traffic. I like hunting and fishing and the outdoors,” he says.

In a post on Marquette University Law School’s faculty blog, Wickman wrote, “If I want to go fishing after work, I can go home, hook up a boat trailer and be in the water within 30 minutes. If I forget something at the office, I can ride my bike there in 10 minutes.”

A common misconception about rural work is that lawyers earn lower wages, Orton says. He called it “woefully incorrect” when considering the lower cost of living and amount of work available.  

With the internet, many barriers to rural living—like shopping or entertainment options—have been removed. For those who love open spaces, easy access to the outdoors and generally peaceful living, rural areas are perfect.

“My windshield time I’m looking out for deer and turkeys, not for the guy who’s going to cut me off,” says John Hogan, of Hogan & Melms Law Office in Minocqua.  

After staying home with her 1-year-old twins during the day and going to law school at night, Linda Coleman moved from Madison to Washburn nine years ago to begin practicing law. Having grown up in Superior, she was quite familiar with northern Wisconsin and jumped at the chance to raise her family in a small town. More personalized attention at school, the feeling of safety, and everyone knowing each other are common in Washburn, she says.

That’s not to say living in small towns doesn’t have drawbacks. Being recognized at the grocery store can feel warm one day but uncomfortable the next.

“You’re probably going to run into people that you are suing on behalf of other people, or see the spouse of someone you are representing in a divorce,” says Coleman, of Spears, Carlson & Coleman. “I’m asking difficult questions, and I may see you later that day at the baseball field.”

Seeing clients at their most vulnerable times in their lives may, at times, drive them away, says Platteville attorney Bret Nason. “Some of my clients feel embarrassed to walk into my office for debt help. But I understand. They might want to just go to someone farther away so no one else knows what their business is.”

‘Jack of All Trades’

Within his first three years of moving to Ashland, Wickman says he had “a jury trial, an argument at the state Supreme Court, and just about everything in between.” 

The variety of work means rural lawyers don’t know what’s coming through the door each day and might jump from one issue to another very different one in a matter of minutes. 

“When you’re in a rural area, you better be a jack of all trades,” says Hogan.

Last year, Lein and his co-counsel settled a national class action lawsuit. Coleman has also handled significant cases, including two that wound up in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and likely did so faster than she would have in a larger city.

“You’re not working through the channels of the upper echelon at a law firm,” Coleman says. “I find it engaging and interesting, and I think that’s a difference from what you’re likely to experience at a larger firm in more of a metropolis.”

Orton cautions against the idea that only small law offices exist in rural areas, or that rural attorneys can’t specialize. While there are no mega firms like in urban areas, there are mid-sized firms that allow attorneys to focus on specific areas.

“Most people equate rural practice with solo practice, or one- or two-person practices, and that’s a mistake,” Orton says. 

Nason is a solo practitioner, but focuses in bankruptcy and debt relief. He went to law school at age 40 after the school district where he taught music cut positions. He’s lived in small towns his whole life, growing up in Brownsdale, Minnesota (population 700). His current home of Lancaster, at 3,700 residents, is the biggest town in which he’s lived.

“I live in a nice neighborhood. We have all the necessities in town. If I do need something I can’t get, I’m only 45 minutes away from Dubuque, and Madison is about 90 minutes away,” Nason says. “It’s a small community of lawyers—we all know everybody else, or at least know somebody who knows somebody.”

Rural Lawyer Shortage

Hogan is originally from California but got acquainted with northern Wisconsin through summers as a youth at his grandparents’ home. After graduating from Marquette in 1977, he joined a small firm in Minocqua, where his grandparents lived. At that time, about 30 attorneys practiced in the area. Now it’s four. Nearby Forest County has one. 

Public defender appointments are particularly difficult. “There’s plenty of work to do, but people just don’t think about coming here,” Hogan says. 

Attracting young lawyers has proven difficult for many small-town firms throughout Wisconsin. A state Bar task force presented a report in June showing that less than 40% of active lawyers in Wisconsin practice outside Madison, Milwaukee and the Fox River Valley corridor. 

And among rural attorneys, most of them are aged 60 or older, and trends show they are not being replaced as they retire, according to the report.

“When young law students graduate, and they’re presented with a job in the city and the glitz of the city that goes with it, it’s pretty tantalizing,” Orton says. 

Rural firms have a unique challenge in that a new attorney must work with clients and build a caseload right away, which takes time and investment. For small law offices, that often means losing money on a new attorney while they build their practice.

“Understandably, that’s a scarier risk for someone to take,” Wickman says. 

With fewer attorneys to go around, rural lawyers must navigate a minefield of potential conflicts of interest. On the upside, attorneys point to a more friendly atmosphere among colleagues as a result of working the same cases and being around one another so often. 

One of the biggest challenges of rural law work is logistical—covering a large geographic area. 

Before videoconferencing became commonplace, attorneys like those in northern Wisconsin had to devote a lot of time just to driving as they traveled to courthouses. Lawyers must also keep up with rules and regulations for each county.

Lein says he has taken cases in nearly every part of Wisconsin. This summer, Coleman traveled to hearings in Barron, Polk and Sawyer counties in the same week. 

“You just spend so much time driving to these various areas,” Hogan says. “But it’s hard to say no. If you have a full caseload and somebody you know calls you and says, ‘I need you, I need you,’ it’s hard to say no because there’s so much work that’s out there that could be done.”

The state Bar task force’s report highlighted court rules on videoconferencing and support for broadband legislation as ways to help attorneys expand their reach into rural areas. 

Attorneys say it would be good as well if law schools highlight career paths available in small towns.

“An awful lot of kids who go into law school grew up in the city,” Orton says. “They can’t fathom coming out here. Similarly, there are a lot of kids who go to law school who did grow up in a small town, but they are operating under these misconceptions because they really don’t know the nature of the law being practiced out here.”

Worth It

These six attorneys say the fulfillment they receive in their communities far outweighs any drawbacks. 

Lawyers are fundamentally problem solvers, Orton says. And as such, they can have a profound impact on their community and serve in a variety of ways—helping schools, churches, libraries, clubs and causes.

“If giving back and helping folks out is something that’s important to you, it’s really available out here,” Orton says.

Achieving positive outcomes for clients that attorneys know on a personal basis makes the job more fulfilling as well.

“Whether I got them a thousand dollars or I got them hundreds of thousands of dollars, clients are very thankful they got their day in court,” Lein says.

As he reflects on his career, Hogan says the cases that stand out are the ones in which he helps make a difference in someone’s life. 

“There’s a lot of people with needs that you can help them with. That’s the whole purpose of a law degree: helping people,” Hogan says. “When I put my head down on the pillow at night, I want to say that I helped people today. Up here, that’s easy to do.”

Hidden Gems

The Place What Outsiders Know It For What People Should Know It For
Washburn The Apostle Islands All of the opportunities along Lake Superior, because truly it’s the heart of the town. There’s beaches, skiing, festivals; the lake is the center of all we do.” –Linda Coleman
Ashland Lake Superior “We have a four-year college and all the culture that comes with it—arts, competitive sports, and vibrant people.” –Tyler Wickman
Mauston Being an interstate truck stop “It’s a typical, Midwestern, small town and I don’t know that it needs to be anything more. What drew me is the practice at a Class-A law firm.” –John Orton
Platteville Platte Mound M “The university. It’s a really good school that gets overlooked because we’re fairly close to Madison. It’s also the cultural center of Grant County.” –Bret Nason
Vacation spots like Minocqua, Lakeland, and Three Lakes “The quality of life is absolutely the best. We have excellent restaurants, golf, and other facilities, plus the cost of living is lower than the cities, and I think the winters are easier.” –John Hogan
Hayward The Muskie, the Birkebeiner, 
and the lakes
“Honest, hard-working people.” –Matthew Lein

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