CENTER, Neb. -- Fourteen years ago, the veteran lawyer built his retirement home. He decorated the basement with snowmen and skis, a nod to how he'd like to spend the future.
But John Thomas, 61, can't retire. Can't plan lengthy trips to Colorado resorts with his wife, Nancy. Not until he finds a successor, a young lawyer to take over his law firm in this town, population 94.
The problem: Young lawyers in these endless plains are about as scarce as freshly powdered slopes. That's why Thomas' hopes soared in February, when he opened a letter from Alissa Doerr, a second-year student at the Nebraska College of Law. She wanted to be his clerk for the summer. She was his first applicant in 20 years.
Rural Nebraska needs lawyers. Young, single, college-educated people keep leaving the Heartland, enticed elsewhere by more money or exposed brick lofts or mimosa-drenched brunches. The young have long fled small towns for big city lights, but the trend has been worse in recent years, aggravated by recession and a historic concentration of resources in urban areas. Nearly 60 percent of America's rural counties lost residents last year. That's up from 50 percent in 2009 and 40 percent in the late '90s, according to census data.
Knox County, where Thomas has worked nearly four decades, is a window into this exodus: There were 19,100 residents in 1930, 11,700 in 1970 and today, 8,560. The county has 12 attorneys. Eight are older than 60, also looking to retire.
Thomas independently juggles 300 far-flung clients, some of whom drive two hours to see him. He's also the Knox County attorney, navigating a constant flow of criminal cases at the courthouse next door.
He's getting tired.
State officials are trying to help him. The Nebraska Bar Association recently asked Thomas to help shape the state's Rural Practice Loan Repayment Assistance Program. Effective next year, law graduates who work in counties with populations of less than 15,000 can start receiving up to $42,000 in student debt relief. (The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy is still drafting the guidelines with plans to announce them in October.)
Recipients must stay 10 years to earn the full amount, forsaking city life, higher salaries -- and, potentially, the professional network to move on and up.
The money is a good draw. But, Thomas realizes, it needs an accompanying sales pitch.
-- -- --
Alissa Doerr grew up on a Knox County farm.
She prefers the country, the logical cycle of calves and corn. She carries pepper spray in Lincoln. And don't ask about her three-month agriculture lobbying internship last year in Washington, D.C. She'd rather hear the crickets at night than her neighbor's Netflix marathon.
Her ambition has country grit. She dreams of someday running her own practice. All summer, Thomas has been showing her reasons to pick his.
If Doerr wanted to buy Thomas' firm, he'd cut her a good deal and rest easy knowing his clients, his neighbors, were in her hands. He doesn't want to apply too much pressure, though. Doerr's options are wide open. And her boyfriend of two years lives 120 miles away.
"It will take me ages to up wrap up every case myself," Thomas says. "Country living isn't as simple as you'd think."
Nebraska policymakers have long wondered how to attract -- and retain -- young lawyers. Until recently, tuition debt relief was mostly available for recent graduates who decided to work for nonprofits and government agencies.
That wasn't enough to stay competitive with cities like Omaha, where more than 2,000 attorneys work. Nebraska's biggest city has dodgeball leagues, Tinder options, yoga classes. Center's only bar closes on Mondays.
Meeting new people here is much harder, Doerr admits. She feels lucky to have already built a satisfying, mutually supportive relationship. Her brother, who will take over the family farm, went to community college in Norfolk, the nearest city, with two goals: Earn a degree -- and find a wife.
Exacerbated by these forces, the rural lawyer shortage persists, delaying justice for people with already limited resources. Country attorneys retire, unreplaced. Twelve Nebraska counties today have no lawyers.
Craig Schroeder, senior associate of youth engagement and hometown competitiveness coordinator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, blames a communication breakdown.
"Young people often don't know about the opportunities available to them in small towns," he says. "Great opportunities -- the chance to make a real difference -- are lost this way."
Rural employers don't advertise jobs outside town lines. New graduates assume no one's hiring. Businesses dry up and fulfill the prophecies of both.
Donna Taylor, a county judge who frequently decides Thomas' cases, says her territory needs extra legal help. In recent years, she's watched early-career lawyers pack up and leave. The veterans, overwhelmed with work and a sense of community duty, feel stuck.
"There's such good potential for new lawyers to move up here," she says. "A lot of time when new graduates are hired by big firms, they do one thing -- learn one thing -- and are expected to bill a lot of hours. In a small town, they get to do everything."
The Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln is trying to amplify rural exposure through an annual bus tour. Soon-to-be-graduates can coast through different counties on spring break, meet local attorneys and shake hands with business leaders.
Center isn't a stop yet, but Thomas is trying.
-- -- --
It's an hour from a Wal-Mart or Starbucks or stoplight.
Highway 84 in northeastern Nebraska becomes Main Street for five blocks in Center.
Notice the unpaved tributary streets, the cottages marked by last names, the cows grazing in backyards, the community swing-set painted like an American flag. Twenty-six families live here.
Cruise past a post office, a town hall, an auto shop, a church, a bank, the Knox County Courthouse and Thomas' law firm.
Climb the concrete steps and step into his gray-brick building, built in 1931. Greet his secretary, Emily, who has worked here three decades. Scan hundreds of legal books, largely untouched since Thomas bought a computer. Read the gold plaque: FIRST CLASS LAWYER.
Thomas, a Creighton law graduate, adopted this private practice in 1978 from another lawyer, who inherited it in 1969. He was promised steady work from two towns, two schools and two banks -- about $2,000 worth of monthly billable hours.
"That's just how it works here," he says on an August afternoon, sitting at his antique conference table. "You learn from someone, they retire, and you take over their practice. People get to know and trust you. I'm representing the grandkids of former clients, now."
Doerr is perched next to him, sipping coffee. She wants to learn from a seasoned attorney for two or three years before running her own firm. Doerr feels she has barely scratched the surface this summer with Thomas. The duo has stayed busy with family estates, criminal cases and farm sales.
The intern loves Thomas' stories. He's well-known and liked in her hometown, Creighton, 10 miles away. He's her parents' attorney. That's why she applied.
Working here, Doerr figured, would save money and show her what it's really like to practice law outside Lincoln and D.C. Her body language is that of an earnest apprentice: back straight, amber eyes on the mentor, fully awake, straining to take it all in.
Thomas tells her about the time he drove three hours -- and a mile off any paved road -- to interview a hermit-like witness. And the time he helped set a hog ordinance in nearby Bazile Mills, population 29: "If you have hogs on feed, they make a stink, and people wanted to restrict that. The village board meeting was in the mayor's kitchen -- again wood burning stove, corn cobs to get the fire started. It was very democratic because practically the whole town attended."
That happened 25 years ago. "But I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen again tomorrow."
More recently, Thomas and Doerr shared a distinctly country task. An Amish farmer hitched his horse outside the firm. He had ridden 18 miles to file his quarterly income taxes, which, in Knox County, is something else the lawyer does. Ink-scrawled cow sales lined the farmer's spiral notebook.
Thomas grabbed his calculator. He's used to crunching numbers for clients who lack computerized anything. But Doerr stopped him.
She opened her laptop, eyed the farmer's records and, with millennial-texting speed, punched everything into an Excel spreadsheet. The automatic math obliterated an hour of tedium.
"It's like magic," he said.
-- -- --
Days before Doerr's internship ends, Thomas invites her to dinner at home with his wife. The menu: Grilled pork chops, hand-picked corn and homemade key lime pie. Country comfort foods.
It's the first of two goodbye meals. Next week, the Knox County Courthouse employees will throw her a brunch.
On this evening, they crowd around the kitchen table, reflecting on the summer. "Alissa knows how to make me feel old," Thomas says, laughing. "I had to ask her, 'Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?' "
"Well, sorry, I don't listen to the classics," Doerr retorts.
Doerr has enjoyed this job more than any work in Lincoln. More than the prestigious lobbying gig in Washington. And it's exciting. Thomas, who helps the coroner, visits crime scenes. Once, he told her, a vegetarian shot her boyfriend because he brought home bologna. The convicted killer smoked until the police came, filling several ashtrays. It reminds Doerr of the Miranda Lambert song, "Gunpowder and Lead": I'm goin' home, gonna load my shotgun. Wait by the door and light a cigarette.
Still, Thomas' firm is 120 miles away from her boyfriend's immovable construction company. (There's only two lawyers in his county.) She wants to start a family, eventually. It'd be easier for her to relocate, but she'd have to start from scratch.
One plan, however, is firmly set: Doerr will accept the state's rural assistance money to cover her $12,000 student debt. She will invest her life in rural America. The exact location is still up in the air.
"She's taught me more than I've taught her," Thomas says, as he often does. "She looks up statutes on legal apps."
"And you know exactly where to find them in the books," she says. "It's amazing."
On Doerr's last day, Thomas will give her a going-away present, a Center souvenir to hang in her Lincoln apartment. It's a cartoon by a local artist, depicting his hope for her near future: A young woman running her own small-town law firm.