Ski Town Lawyering: Nuts and Bolts
Fantasy: "I’ll be general counsel for a ski company!" "I’ll be the premier ski accident and injury lawyer in Colorado!"
Reality: “I’m getting evicted from my trailer. I need a lawyer.”
When people tell me that they want to be a ski town lawyer, I sometimes take that with a grain of salt. What do they really want? What do they think ski town lawyering is all about?
The reality is that Vail’s corporate counsel isn’t in a ski town (the main corporate offices are in a Denver suburb), and hardly anyone handles ski accident litigation on a large scale.
Having busted these two fantasies, what do ski town lawyers do? How does one hack it as a ski town lawyer?
The answer is: there are a lot of ways to be a lawyer in a ski town. In this post, I’ll explore some of the models I have seen ski town lawyers use to support themselves.
Model #1: You Are A “Real” Lawyer (Congratulations!)
This model is the most traditional of the ways to practice law in a ski town. Here, the lawyer is what the general public thinks of when they think “lawyer.” The lawyer has a brick and mortar office in the ski town or surrounding area. The lawyer probably does some advertising, either on the local radio station or in the local newspaper. They generally accept the clients that walk through the door. They’re a solo practitioner or in a small firm a few partners or associates.
I said in an earlier post that ski town lawyers are generalists, and this is especially true in this context. In this model, lawyers might advertise expertise in a few practice areas. Here are the substantive practice areas that I see the most need for in ski towns:
· Homeowners Associations
· Land Use
· Real Estate
· Water Law
· Domestic/Family Law
· Criminal Defense
· Probate and Estate Administration
· Estate Planning
· Small Business
· Civil Litigation
The advantages of this model are that you pull clients from a lot of different areas and can cast a pretty wide net. You’ll meet a ton of lawyers and lay people in your area and community. You can build a reputation for yourself and start to put down roots.
The disadvantage is that you’ll really feel the bust part of the boom-and-bust cycle that inevitably comes. You’re a generalist, so you have to be competent in many areas and you’ll need to be extremely proficient in legal research. Unless you have an “in” to one of the established firms in the area, you might find it difficult to get your foot in the door. Starting your own practice if you’re new to the area is really risky.
Model #2: Institutional or Organizational Clients
The second model that I see working for ski town lawyers is to have an institutional client or work for one. I see this mostly in two contexts: the criminal law world as a District Attorney or Public Defender and the municipal law world as County Attorney or Municipal Attorney.
In some ways, this might be the easiest way to get your foot in the door as an aspiring ski town lawyer, especially as a DA/PD. The Colorado Public Defender’s Office has offices in Dillion (near A-Basin, Breck, Keystone, and Copper), Steamboat Springs, Salida (Monarch Mountain), Glenwood Springs (Aspen, Snowmass, Buttermilk), and Durango (Purgatory). Some of these are not “ski towns” in the strictest sense but they’re within reasonable striking distance to world class skiing.
The drawback about working in the PDs office is that you have little control over your first assignment and you could find yourself working in an office about as far from skiing as you can get while still being in Colorado. My sense is that you have much greater control over this as you gain experience and seniority, but I can’t describe the process with any confidence.
Besides criminal law, municipal law is a great avenue for a ski town lawyer. Counties are vested with certain functions, including providing Health and Human Services programs, so child protection is an important component of being a County Attorney. County Attorneys also advise the Board of County Commissioners and county boards/commissions, such as the Planning Commission. County Attorneys have to be familiar with open meeting laws, public record laws, land use, contracts, employment law, and a host of other topics. The same goes for Town Attorneys. Depending on the size of the municipality, it might employ lawyers in house or it might contract with a law firm to provide representation.
The good thing is that I do see these jobs advertised fairly regularly. The bad thing is that, depending on the county, there might be a grand total of one lawyer serving as County Attorney and that same lawyer has served in that role for 40 years. It seems to me that this is pretty mixed bag in terms of opportunities and turn over, so I think you’d need to be open to a variety of locations if you’re seeking these types of jobs.
Model #3: Get a Contract
The Colorado Judicial Branch has several state agencies with a specialized legal focus, including the Office of the Child’s Representative (Guardian Ad Litems), Office of the Respondent Parent Counsel (lawyers for parents in dependency and neglect proceedings), Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel (criminal defense lawyers for when the Public Defender’s Office is conflicted out of representation).
These offices generally engage lawyers as contractors to provide services to their constituent clients. Each office has different criteria and processes for selecting lawyers.
The hourly rate for this type of work is comparatively low, but it’s a great source of income for a ski town lawyer. Many ski town lawyers have, at one point in their career or another, gained a contract with a state judicial agency and have kept fairly busy through that work.
Model #4: Part-time/Remote/Specialized Lawyering
For whatever reason, there seems to be a higher percentage of lawyers in ski towns working part-time or remotely.
More and more employers are open to considering remote options. If you can land a gig with this set-up, go for it and move to your dream town!
I said earlier that ski town lawyers tend to be generalists. Although that’s generally the case, if your location doesn’t really matter to your practice, you could set up shop in a ski town. If you’re a specialist and have an established reputation such that your ability to pull in clients does not depend on your location, this could be a good model for you. I see this working for lawyers who have worked for a long time in a larger city and established some niche practice there that they can later transfer to a ski town.
Model #5: JD Advantage
In this model, the lawyer also works outside of practicing law, albeit in a field where having a JD may be beneficial or advantageous.
I’ve known many lawyers who have served as executive directors or policy-oriented staff members of nonprofit organizations, especially ones that intersect with the law in some specialized way, like environment or education.
Real estate is another cross-over area. If you want to make money in a ski town, be a ski town real estate agent during the boom time.
Politics is an option for ski town lawyers. I know ski town lawyers with private practices who have served as Mayor, Town Councilor, County Commissioner, or in the state legislature.
Teaching is a great way to supplement practicing law. Some ski towns are lucky enough to have community colleges or universities. Colorado Mountain College has campuses in Leadville, Steamboat Springs, Aspen/Roaring Fork Valley, Breckenridge, Dillon, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and the Vail Valley. Gunnison (near Crested Butte) has Western State Colorado University. Durango (near Purgatory) has Ft. Lewis College. I know many lawyers who have served as adjunct professors in political science, environment/natural resources, business law, or some related area.
This obviously isn’t for everyone and might not be what you think of when you think “ski town lawyer.” But it is definitely a viable option and you’ll draw on many of the same skills as you would practicing law.
Model #6: Not At All A Lawyer (Alternate Income Streams)
More than a few ski town lawyers have alternate income streams. Almost everyone in a ski town has a main squeeze and a side hustle, and lawyers are not exempt from this. How much of your work involves practicing law and how much involves that side hustle can vary pretty widely.
I know coffee shop owners and property managers and innkeepers and project managers who are lawyers in a ski town.
There’s no one right way to be a ski town lawyer. These are just some of the models I’ve seen friends and colleagues adopt. If you’re serious about becoming a ski town lawyer, start Googling law firms and lawyers in ski towns to get a feel for the kind of work they do. Get a feel for the major institutions and employers in the area. Start calling and emailing lawyers and offering to take them out for coffee or a beer.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the mindset you should adopt as an aspiring ski town lawyer.