Ski Town Lawyering: Challenges and Opportunities

If you’re seriously thinking about becoming a ski town lawyer, you need to make that decision with your eyes open to both the challenges and opportunities of living and working in this type of community.  For me, the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but you’ll have to make that decision for yourself.  

 Nordic ski track looking towards the Paradise Divide

Nordic ski track looking towards the Paradise Divide

THE CHALLENGES

Small Towns

Although the population of ski towns varies, you’re going to be in a pretty small town, especially compared to the larger population centers on the Front Range.  Here is the breakdown of approximate county population size of some of Colorado’s best ski areas:

  • La Plata County (Purgatory): 55,000
  • Eagle County (Vail, Beaver Creek): 54,000
  • Summit County (Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone): 30,000
  • Routt County (Steamboat Springs): 25,000
  • Chaffee County (Monarch Mountain): 19,000
  • Pitkin County (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Snowmass): 17,000
  • Gunnison County (Crested Butte): 16,000
  • Grand County (Winter Park): 15,000
  • San Miguel County (Telluride): 8,000
  • San Juan County (Silverton): 694—yes, you read that right.

Keep in mind that this is the population of the entire county, some of which rival the smaller states in size.  As you can see, some resorts are in counties with a healthy population base, some are…not.  Your ability to land a job in a ski town will very likely strongly correlate with the population of that town or county.  Anecdotally, I see more legal job postings in Pitkin County and Eagle County than other ski towns, which is probably a function of population size, accessibility, and wealth concentration.

Remote

The distance from the population centers and resources in the Front Range is a huge factor in being a ski town lawyer.  Many Colorado ski resorts line the I-70 corridor or are a 2 hour drive from Denver.  Summit County and Eagle County are the most accessible from Denver.  Others are an 8 hour drive from Denver.  And these are not easy cruises.  Getting from Denver to almost any ski town will involve driving over one or two 12,000-foot mountain passes.  San Juan County is accessed by the scariest road in America, Red Mountain Pass.  (Don’t believe me?  Read this Outside Magazine article: https://www.outsideonline.com/2158856/keep-your-hands-wheel-and-dont-look-down)

I am hardly a winter driving novice, but between wildlife on the road, sketchy weather, and serious passes, I think twice about driving in the mountains in the winter.  It is definitely something to keep in mind.  Some towns are supported by the Denver drive market, and some are more of destination resorts. 

The remote and relatively inaccessible nature of ski towns can be an access to justice issue.  Every appellate court in Colorado is located in Denver.  Most state and federal agencies are headquartered in Denver or the surrounding suburbs.  This can mean long and expensive travel to represent clients, although Colorado is working on expanding remote oral argument opportunities in the Court of Appeals.

I live in Colorado's 7th Judicial District.  The official Colorado Judicial Branch webpage says this about the 7th JD:

The 7th Judicial District is made up of six counties in west-central Colorado...The geographical area of the District is approximately 10,000 square miles of mostly high mountain valleys. This area is about the same size as the state of Vermont or Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The distance between Lake City in the eastern part of the District and Nucla in the west is approximately 200 miles one-way. The towns of Gunnison (Gunnison County), Lake City (Hinsdale) and Telluride (San Miguel County) have elevations of over 7,700 feet.

Boom and Bust

At any time, ski towns fall somewhere in a continual boom-and-bust economic cycle.  When the economy is strong, ski resorts do well, visitors come and spend their money, businesses open and hire employees, and houses are built.  When the economy is in a recession, ski towns feel it hard.  People stop coming, businesses go under, houses go into foreclosure, and locals move out of town.  And because so much of the economy directly or indirectly depends on tourism, the impact is really concentrated. 

You’ll absolutely see a difference practicing law in a boom time versus a bust time, and you need to think about building a practice that can weather the slow times as well as the busy ones.

Specialist vs. Generalist

Ski towns, especially the smaller ones, do not support legal specialists.  (I’ll talk more about business models in a later post).  If you want to practice bankruptcy or immigration or patent law, you will probably find it difficult to do in a ski town.  Most ski town lawyers are generalists to some extent.  You'll really need to consider whether you can live with that, or really need to consider how you’ll hack it in a ski town with a more specialized practice.

Also, most lawyers in ski towns practice in solo or small firms.  In my county, the biggest firm has four lawyers.  Some larger law firms in Denver have a satellite office in a ski town, especially Vail or Aspen, but those often consist of a few lawyers at the most.

Compensation

Pretty much as a rule, compensation is lower across the board in rural Colorado compared to the urban corridor.  This is true in the legal profession.  Your salary is just not going to be what it would be in Denver.  If money is a primary consideration for you (no judgment either way), assess whether you’ll be happy not being able to keep up with the Denver Joneses and being on the left (low) end of the bimodal attorney compensation distribution curve.

Economic Opportunities

Limited economic opportunity is somewhat of a hallmark of ski towns.  This might not directly impact you as a lawyer, but it will definitely impact your clients, spouse, and children.  Ski town jobs focus on hospitality, resort management, and recreation.  Some of the larger ski towns will have colleges or universities, hospitals, start-ups, and state/federal government offices.  I personally think there is tremendous potential for growth in ski towns and in rural Colorado, but the reality is that there is simply less opportunity compared what you’d find in a bigger city.

One issue that I have seen play out time and time again is that one half of a couple can find a job that they’re happy with in a ski town, but the other partner really struggles to find a job in their chosen field.  If you have a significant other, have a really honest conversation about this before you make the plunge to be a ski town lawyer.

Resort Town Issues

There are a couple of unavoidable truths about ski town life.  The cost of living is high.  Affordable housing, even on a lawyer’s salary, can feel like a pipe dream.  You might get sick of getting pizza from the one joint in town.  Small town politics can be really fun.  If you’re in a ski town, you really might experience a couple months of -20 mornings and you really might have snow on the ground from October to May.  When they're road biking and golfing in Denver, we might be living through 'Mayuary,' also known as ‘second winter.’ 

If you’re really committed to living in a ski town, assuming you haven’t already spent time living in one, try to see it through a local’s eyes.  Imagine actually living here for a year or two, not just as an occasional weekend visitor.  Sometimes, people come to a ski town on vacation and imagine their life here as an extension of their vacation.  I think this happens more often with casual visitors more so than with frequent visitors or Colorado natives.  Just keep in mind what you’re getting into!

THE OPPORTUNITIES

If you’ve read all about the challenges and it didn’t completely scare you off, the good news is that there really are opportunities for lawyers in ski towns.  I am going to talk more specifically about business/employment models in the next post, but here is my take on the opportunities that will help you land a ski town lawyering gig.

Need for Lawyers

In my experience, a large segment of ski town lawyers are entering retirement age or have moved out of the area.  I haven’t seen a significant influx of new lawyers taking their place.  I believe there is a need for lawyers in ski towns and a very strong need for lawyers in counties adjacent to counties with ski towns.  For example, my county, Gunnison County, has a healthy population of practicing lawyers.  The counties directly to the south of me, Saguache and Hinsdale Counties, have very low population densities and have maybe 1 or 2 lawyers.  If you're at all interested in access to justice work, there is a role for you in rural Colorado. 

Strong Growth

Colorado is experiencing strong economic growth, and ski towns are no exception.  There’s no doubt that we are in the boom part of the boom and bust cycle.  I see entire neighborhoods being built, and during my time on the Planning Commission, I saw several new large-scale commercial developments approved.  People are definitely visiting, moving to, or investing money in ski towns, and they'll need lawyers at some point.

The changing demographic and the pace of growth both suggest that there is an unfilled need for ski town lawyers.  Most of the lawyers I know practicing in a ski town are busy these days.  Some report that they are really busier than they want to be. 

Whether or not solos and small firms are advertising for associates, my sense is that they could use additional help and that business is brisk.

Collegial Atmosphere

An additional opportunity is that ski town lawyers tend to be a very close knit and collegial group.  Lawyers in general are pretty generous with their time, and I think most ski town lawyers would be happy to sit down over coffee or a beer and discuss practicing in their community.  I talk with several lawyers each year looking to make the transition to practicing law in the mountains, and I am always willing to be a sounding board or resource for them.

Mentoring

The Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program facilitates mentoring relationships between Colorado lawyers.  Lawyers can specify the criteria and qualities that they are looking for in a mentor or mentee.  I think this would be a great opportunity for aspiring ski town lawyers to connect with established ski town lawyers (I do think it might make sense to connect with a lawyer in a different area of the state to avoid being in competition for jobs or clients). 

NEXT POST:

In the next post, I am going to discuss the various business and employment models I have seen for ski town lawyers.