Eddie Penner’s career path is a little different from many of his 2012 graduating classmates from the Kansas University School of Law. He’ll be working as an attorney in the southeastern Kansas community of Fort Scott, with a population of about 8,000 people.
While less than 1 percent of the class chose rural or solo practice careers, the law school’s leaders are hoping to increase that number in the years ahead.
Faced with a slumping job market for new attorneys, KU is providing more help to its students interested in pursuing careers in rural areas or striking out on their own in a solo practice.
“They’re very, very similar in terms of what you need to do,” said Arturo Thompson, who has been the KU law school’s assistant dean for career services since last October.
Penner, who grew up in Pittsburg, said he was familiar with the lifestyle and looked forward to his new opportunity. Still, he knows many of his classmates don’t share the same enthusiasm he does for the career path.
“You rarely see a TV show about an attorney in a town of 15,000 people,” he said.
The Wall Street Journal this week reported that economic woes are driving more and more lawyers to expand their job searches to communities that are hiring, even though the salaries may not match bigger firms. As of February, the employment rate for students who graduated in 2011 was about 86 percent, the lowest for a class since 1994, the newspaper reported.
“To say that this has not been driven by the economic downturn would be a fantasy,” Thompson said.
In his new position, Thompson said he wanted to offer students help that they typically don’t receive in law school.
The law school now recommends some specific elective courses for students interested in rural or solo careers. A member of the law school’s graduating class of 2006, Thompson reached out to two classmates to come speak to people interested in those careers. About 35 to 40 students usually show up for the sessions, he said. In the coming academic year, the group plans to visit with people in smaller Kansas communities.
“Unless you’re from a rural community, it’s an incredibly foreign concept to wrap your arms around,” Thompson said.
Mark Dodd, now the executive director at the Kansas State Gaming Agency, is one of Thompson’s classmates who has been speaking to KU students. Before his current post, he worked for more than two years as an attorney in Neosho County.
He tells students that rural communities typically offer more help from other members of the bar. Salaries may start out lower but can match those of students’ urban peers in later years, he said.
“And there’s less and less hiring going on at large firms to begin with,” he said.
Dodd also said he hoped KU law students could gain some knowledge of the basics of operating a business, such as choosing an accounting software, keeping track of one’s time and how to handle budgets.
“That’s definitely not what they teach you in law school,” he said.
While Washburn University also is generating law graduates in Kansas, Thompson said KU should work to create more graduates for areas of the state that need more attorneys.
“We’re KU Law. It’s a state university,” he said. “We have an obligation as the law school for the state.”