Wednesday, December 7, 2016
For readers of this blog, you know that I address technical legal and tax issues. I don’t get into news stories of the day, or theoretical issues that law school (and undergraduate) classrooms are often known for. I deal with real nuts-and-bolts issues where the goal is to provide a resource for practitioners representing farm and ranch clients to turn to that addresses practical problems that they face and need assistance with.
I am deviating from that path today. At age 97, Orville Bloethe passed away (see obituary). After 67 years of practicing in the same rural community that he grew up in (and 2 years of “retirement”), America’s rural lawyer passed away.
“Well, I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob’ly die in a small town
Oh, those small communities”
“Small Town” John Mellencamp
My first contact with Orville was in the early 1990’s. I was starting out in practice in North Platte, NE, and working on a client matter that involved a special use valuation election (I.R.C. §2032A) in a farm client’s estate. The lead partner that was helping me on the estate, Don Kelley (an icon himself in ag law and tax circles), said to call “Orville” and get his input. There was no last name. It was assumed that anyone who worked with ag clients on this type of an issue didn’t need the last name. I figured out who “Orville” was and called him with my questions. He was excited to learn of a new attorney working with ag clients in a rural area. He gave me his view of the statutory provisions at issue and said to convey his greetings to Don. He also gave me the historical background behind the statutory provisions which provided keen insight into their application.
Over the years, I got to know Orville better and had more contact with him. Before I came to Iowa for my professional career, I would get to see him once or twice annually at continuing legal education events. He would sit in the front row. He would also always talk to me after the presentation was over and tell me that was an “outstanding” presentation I had made, whether it actually was or not. That did a lot to build my confidence.
Orville also played an important role in getting me to Iowa. He was always supportive of my vision to provide educational programming focusing on farm and ranch issues and rural practitioners. Over the years, I would get the occasional handwritten letter with a question or just a note of encouragement. Sometimes, the communication would come via fax. Always typewritten, never produced by a computer.
Orville practiced all those years in Victor, Iowa, a town with a population of less than 900. His home was just a few blocks from the office. He was involved in the community, to say the least. He was the attorney for the local school for many years, and contributed generously to support the community. On my trips to eastern Iowa to speak or just when passing through his area, my wife and I would sometimes stop in Victor just to see Orville for a bit. He always took the time to visit, even if his office was full of farm clients needing their estate plan updated or having legal issues associated with a farm sale, or dealing with some other legal matter. When farmers went through the cycles of boom and bust that characterize agriculture, Orville was there. For 67 years, Orville was there. Different issues, same Orville.
What made Orville stay in Victor? Why do so few newly-minted attorneys end up in the small rural communities? It’s a large problem all across rural America. Rural counties in the Midwest and Great Plains are losing population. Numerous counties in Kansas and Nebraska, for example don’t have any lawyers that reside in the county. When I started out in practice, for example, I was the only lawyer that resided in Logan county, Nebraska. But, while the rural areas don’t have the big city lights and entertainment venues and big-firm salaries that can be found in the urban areas, they also don’t have a lot of the downsides of living and practicing in a large urban area. There are opportunities for lawyers in small towns. From a professional standpoint, there is the opportunity to get involved in many legal issues, rather than simply learning one thing and billing lots of hours for it (which often characterizes big-firm practice). The other benefits are varied and might include golfing on sand greens, officiating eight-man football because the real official couldn’t make the two-hour drive to the game, having groceries put on “your tab” or watching one’s daughter play t-ball on a baseball field carved out of a cow pasture and then run the wrong way around the bases after successfully hitting the ball! Orville knew of these opportunities and benefits and illustrated them for others to see for 67 years.
One law school that is trying to make a difference in the rural areas is Washburn - the law school that I am proud to be associated with. Washburn is dedicated to ensuring that there is readily-available legal representation in rural Kansas. To that end, the law school has partnered with Kansas State University on the “Rural Legal Practice Initiative.” The goal of the program is to help students (and potential students) identify and consider career opportunities in rural communities. A component of the program is Washburn’s commitment to repopulate lawyers in rural communities by giving them the chance to live, work and experience a rural community while engaged in an internship with a practicing lawyer. That’s how it works in a rural law practice. A young lawyer learns from an experienced one. The experienced one retires and the young lawyer takes over the practice.
Orville would be pleased with what Washburn and, probably, some other law schools are trying to do to address the shortage of lawyers in rural areas. I can still hear what he would say to a young lawyer coming out of school – that it’s “just great” to live and practice in a small town. Others can testify to that too. I think of Phil and Pat Ridenour, and Kyler and Barbara Knobbe in Cimarron, Kansas, as well as John Thomas in Center, Nebraska. There are others that come to mind from such areas as Algona, Iowa, and the Sandhills of Nebraska, and those from other rural areas across the country that I have come into contact with over the years.
The mantle is now on these rural lawyers to carry the torch and handle the myriad of legal issues that farm and ranch clients bring to the table. For, you see, America’s rural lawyer has passed away.
“Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in this small town
And that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me. "
“Small Town” John Mellencamp
Thank you, Orville, for the legacy you left to the rural practitioner and farm families. You will be missed.