The Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court says she’d like to see more programs that encourage lawyers to live and practice in rural Iowa. Chief Justice Susan Christensen is a Harlan native who still lives in Shelby County.
“I think our schools and our courthouses are our crown jewels in rural Iowa and when either one of those is starting to stumble a little bit, a county is in trouble and we sense it,” she says. “We know it.”
Christensen says people talk about helping doctors and dentists pay off student loans if they practice in rural communities, but no one thinks about lawyers until they need a lawyer.
“One of the problems about practicing law in rural Iowa – if I didn’t have such deep roots, I wouldn’t have gone to Harlan, Iowa — but I think is the pay,” Christensen says. “If I’m from Harlan, Iowa, and somebody else is from Chicago, and we both take out student loans, guess what? Our student loans are the same, so I’m going to work in Harlan for pennies on the dollar compared to what they are going to make in Chicago or somewhere, so there’s just not a lot of incentive for us to go to a small town unless you have a gig ready to go, like I did.”
Christensen suggests the irony is a lawyer who starts out in a small town is able to get far more experience than a law school grad who lands a job in a big city firm.
“I can’t imagine anybody in a bigger firm ever having more court-time experience than I did. You live in a rural community, you get to go to court a lot, as much as you want. I went all the time and I knew every judge by name. I knew what they were like. I knew who I wanted to avoid,” Christensen says. “I’m not so sure you get that in a big firm.”
Christensen says lawyers who work in large firms often spend years “carrying someone else’s briefcase” before they get to have their own clients. Christensen made her comments during the “Breaking Glass” women’s leadership series sponsored by the Mason City Chamber of Commerce.
(Reporting by Bob Fisher, KGLO, Mason City)