Iowa’s Chief Justice talks about ways to attract lawyers to rural Iowa during stop in Mason City

MASON CITY — The Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court was in Mason City this morning as part of a Mason City Chamber of Commerce series.

Susan Christensen, who is a native of Harlan and continues to live in the Shelby County community, says she supports creating more programs that incentivize lawyers who want to serve in rural Iowa. She says there should be a student loan program to help lawyers set up practices in rural communities that may be underserved.  “Nobody wants a way to begin a lawyer, that’s what’s sad. Everybody is all happy about helping a dentist pay off their student loans to come to town or a doctor, but nobody thinks about that for a lawyer. 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 and we know it.” 

Christensen says law school graduates are more attracted to big city jobs where they can pay off their student loans quicker, leaving smaller towns at a disadvantage.  “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. If I’m from Harlan 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. 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 says more should be done to promote the role of a lawyer in small town compared to 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, I knew who I wanted to shoot for. I’m not so sure you get that in a big firm. I think in a big firm, a lawyer — unless you want to carry someone’s briefcase for years — if you really want to get out there and have your own clients who call you by name in the grocery store, then it’s a small town. So I really think we need to promote it as truly actively practicing law.”

Christensen spoke during the “Breaking Glass” series sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.

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