Judge Donna Taylor decides cases across Nebraska. (Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post)

(Working Stories is a recurring series of pieces in which we collect stories of how and why people work. This has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Donna Taylor, county judge, 7th Judicial District, Nebraska:

There’s a great deal of need for young lawyers in rural communities. There’s plenty of work to go around. To a law school student who is trying to decide, ‘Should I leave the city for a small town?’ I’d say: Give it a try.

Before I moved here, I’d never lived in a small town. I was born in Pittsburgh and went to high school in Denver. I applied to law schools all over the place. Creighton offered the best scholarship.

So, I came to Omaha. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it at all. My parents said, ‘You have to give it at least one semester.” Seven years and two degrees later, I was still there, practicing law.

Eventually, one of my colleagues told me about an opening in Neligh, a small town about 140 miles northwest of Omaha. The opportunity intrigued me. I packed my bags and rented a farm there. The landlord told me, “You can live here only if you raise chickens.”

I was far from the city.

I worked at a private practice for awhile. In 1990, I ran for county attorney. It was pretty unusual then for a woman to be elected to an office like that. But all those farmers in Antelope County thought it was okay for me to be their county attorney. After 20 years there, I applied for a county judge vacancy and was appointed by the governor.

I have the best job now. I get to meet people across the state. A lot of them don’t have lawyers, so I get to visit with them in person. My schedule is full, totally busy, with all different kinds of cases. Every day.

The most gratifying thing is working with juveniles. You get the chance to help a young person who is just starting to stray. You have the greatest potential of having a positive effect. Once, I got a letter in the mail. It said: You might not remember me but you sentenced me. I want to thank you. I’m doing fine now.

I split seven rural counties with three other judges. I drive about 1,000 miles per month. Someone in a big city might say, “You do nothing but spend time on the road!” But I never deal with traffic. I’m always on a highway, going about a mile a minute, through beautiful hills and picturesque little farms.

It feels like going back in time.

When I started in Neligh, there were twelve lawyers. Now there are three. I want to see that change soon. The new debt forgiveness program should be a good drawing card. That wasn’t around when I was getting started — and it would have helped me tons.

Practicing law in small town Nebraska means you’re highly visible. You’re a pillar in your community. You’re never going to be another face in the crowd.

Want to make a real difference? Give it a try.

 

Danielle Paquette is a reporter covering the intersection of people and policy. She’s from Indianapolis and previously worked for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow her on Twitter: @Dpaqreport.