State Bar News recently spoke with five attorneys from rural areas about the journeys that brought them to small-town New York and the challenges their practices face.
The following are highlights from those interviews. To read each of their full stories, please visit nysba.org/rurallawyers.
For Minnesota native Judy Pareira, the law is her second career. After 20 years as a pediatric endocrinology nurse in New York City, she went to law school. After receiving her law license, she and her family moved to Saranac Lake where they had a summer home.
"Being a nurse and being a lawyer is a good fit," she said. "Both are advocates for people." Her practice consists mainly of assigned counsel work in Family Court.
Until his wife landed a good job in her hometown, Paul Roalsvig primarily practiced immigration law in and around New York City.
"My wife, having grown up in Long Lake, always was a Long Laker," he said. They moved and he opened a solo practice. "If you want to do something like this, the non-attorney spouse has to be the breadwinner for a time."
Roalsvig's practice is a mix but the bulk of it is as a witness signer and notary for a large lending company. His territory extends north of Interstate 90 to the Canadian border.
Milo Primeaux, originally from Texas, has a virtual civil rights practice in southern Livingston County, about an hour from Rochester. He focuses on LGBTQ+ clients, mostly handling name changes and discrimination cases.
Primeaux has a full caseload. Rural communities are vastly under-resourced, he said.
"Except for New York City and Long Island, my clients come from every county across upstate New York, where folks still cannot locally access the help and resources they need."
Leonard Sienko, Jr.
After law school, Lenny Sienko "went to the only place that has to take you" - home to Hancock.
He is a classic small-town lawyer, handling personal injury, accidents, wills, real estate, business transactions, matrimonial actions, individuals with disabilities, criminal, and all types of litigation.
"A rural law practice is always a series of things," he said. "You have your practice, and you cobble together a series of part-time jobs." Among them, he served as Delaware County estate tax attorney, a court attorney in the trial part of the county court, and an adjunct professor at SUNY Delhi. He currently is the town attorney.
Julie Garcia began her legal career in the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office. Today, she is back home in the North Country of Essex County practicing criminal law. Like many rural lawyers, Garcia is almost constantly working.
Garcia takes assigned counsel cases, and her practice uses a sliding scale fee because many people who make too much money to qualify for assigned counsel still cannot afford an attorney.
"If you get a DWI in Essex County, you can lose your job and your livelihood," which can have a huge impact on a family, said Garcia. "We do not have as many job opportunities as urban areas do."
'Can you hear me now?'
Technology shortcomings, including unreliable broadband, is a common complaint amongst rural lawyers.
Pareira drives between family courts in Franklin and Essex counties. If Pareira is on the road and gets a call, it likely will drop. She will pick it up when she regains service. Her office has cable, but it is often sluggish. She takes note of hot spots. "There's one in my driveway," she said.
Garcia, who has offices in Warrensburg and Port Henry, travels a circuit of county and local courts. Garcia knows "all the hot spots" on her routes and said that she can give callers a one-minute warning before she loses them.
Both noted that the switch from landlines to cellphones has had some unintended consequences. Contacting clients can be difficult because of lack of cell service or if they run out of minutes. "I used to be able to leave a message on clients' answering machines if they weren't home," said Pareira, adding that if a client hasn't set up voicemail or is out of minutes, she loses contact. Garcia will try to connect via Facebook messenger. "It's free," she said, "so if they can use a library or are with a friend whose phone is working, they can check Facebook."
Primeaux and his partner work from home, buy the maximum amount of data from their cell service provider each month and utilize hotspots on their devices. Cable is not available, and the area is too overcast to rely on a satellite dish. Out of necessity, Primeaux runs "a very lean and efficient practice."
Roalsvig uses cable in his office. Fiber-optic service is available, but switching carriers means his email address would change. Cell service worked in Long Lake, but not in Elizabethtown, the Essex County seat, or other, nearby towns like Newcomb. A recent upgrade changed that. Now, said Roalsvig, "I get email on my phone."
When you're a rural lawyer, constant traveling and working from your car comes with the territory.
Garcia has logged 275,000 miles on her 2012 Honda Accord.
Pareira is in Family Court almost daily, and each county seat is an hour's drive from her office.
Roalsvig and Sienko stopped doing contested divorces because of the distance. The closest state Supreme Court to Long Lake "is in Johnstown in Fulton County, nearly a two-hour drive," said Roalsvig. He pointed out that family court matters are heard at the county level, suggesting that allowing "county courts to do contested divorces" would give parties and their counsel better access.
Conflicts of Interest
While the shortage of lawyers in rural areas causes obvious challenges like financial stress and limited resources, conflicts of interest are also a concern.
Roalsvig said that conflicts make a litigation practice difficult in a small town. "What if a plaintiff cannot find a lawyer in the area who doesn't have a conflict? A plaintiff would have to go to Syracuse or Utica," Roalsvig pointed out. It's a major burden if local attorneys cannot represent local plaintiffs, he added.
Sienko agrees that a small-town lawyer must be diligent about conflicts. He is the town attorney but does not represent the town in court.
Help When You Need It
With rural lawyers facing so many challenges, they look for ways to help one another out.
When Primeaux went solo, he "leaned into" the Solo and Small Practice Committee of the Monroe County Bar Association. The bar also offers secure space where attorneys can meet clients or work.
Garcia credits the New York State Defenders Association as an excellent resource for criminal defense attorneys. "They are willing to take my calls and give advice," she said.
Sienko recalls the weekly lunches he and other attorneys would share after Monday calendar calls. It was mentorship at its most organic. And it was an invaluable lesson in civility, he said, getting to know someone who would, in time, stand on the other side of the courtroom.