On Main Street in the small town of West Union, West Virginia, there’s a new law firm in a former bed and breakfast. It is Sarah Petitto’s practice.
The 2020 WVU Law graduate, who grew up 30 miles away in West Milford, has always dreamed of operating a solo general law practice.
“I went to law school to become a public interest attorney, and I knew I wanted to come back to work in my community,” she said. “I was never really interested in going somewhere to work for a firm or anything like that.”
Petitto was one of two inaugural recipients of the Rural Practice Scholarship at WVU Law. Established by the West Virginia State Bar for the Class of 2020, it paid tuition and fees for three years of law school in exchange for a three-year commitment to practice law in a rural West Virginia county.
That groundbreaking scholarship allowed Petitto to go back home, start her law practice and get to work helping her neighbors.
Petitto’s landlord happens to be a founding member of the Doddridge County Chamber of Commerce, so news of her arrival in West Union (pop. 647) traveled quickly.
Residents were so excited to have a new attorney in the area that some local businesses posted her newspaper ad in their windows. Also, the local newspaper ran a front-page spread about Petitto to help get the word out.
That’s how great the need is for attorneys in rural areas known as attorney deserts.
West Union, WV.
Once Petitto Law, PLLC officially opened for business, clients quickly began coming in. Petitto now has a full list of clients who need legal help with evictions, divorces, contracts, family law issues like abuse and neglect cases, and more. She also works regularly as a court-appointed attorney for the West Virginia Third Circuit that includes Doddridge, Ritchie and Pleasants Counties.
To learn the finer points of court-appointed work before she took it on, Petitto shadowed her mentor John Scott, a solo practitioner in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Scott is a 1994 WVU Law graduate and is a Petitto family friend.
According to Petitto, her quick success was partly because the list of available court-appointed attorneys is very short in her community, and there is an overwhelming number of clients that need help. Further, there is no one local who can help people create or update wills, no one to help home buyers close on their property, and no local divorce attorney.
“I see a great need for young attorneys here. People just don’t have the same access to a basic network of lawyers,” Petitto said. “There is no one here to protect these citizens’ rights. I am the only attorney in Doddridge County, so I am saving people a long trip to the next county over. I really feel like I am filling a need in this community.”
Seeing how restricted her neighbors are when it comes to access to legal services has inspired Petitto to stay in Doddridge County far longer than the three years required to satisfy her scholarship criteria.
“I don’t see myself leaving any time soon,” Petitto said. “There are only five attorneys at our Defense Bar meetings. They need help lightening the load of legal needs here.”
Nathan Bennett is the other recipient of the Rural Practice Scholarship. He opened his own firm in Petersburg, West Virginia, and put down roots — buying a house in town and operating a law firm from his home office.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave Bennett the opportunity to create a virtual law firm instead of hanging his shingle on a brick-and-mortar building. He learned online how to create a Google Business profile, a business Facebook account and how to advertise on search engines and social media. Soon, his online firm began seeing clients.
He, like Petitto, also took on court-appointed work and quickly began getting referrals from overworked court staff and attorneys in the area. Because his small community relies heavily on word-of-mouth, Bennett wrote a letter to the local courts announcing his presence and offering to help take on the heavy workload.
“My favorite thing about running my own general practice law firm is I never know what tomorrow will bring,” Bennett said. “I do a lot of criminal appointments, abuse and neglect cases, adoptions, divorce and property disputes, so when a new client calls, I never know what legal issue they may have.”
As a new attorney, Bennett had to quickly learn his way around the local courts. He did this by asking questions and learning from others. He has been welcomed into his small legal community, while his mentor, Dean Rohrig, has helped him navigate the court system. Rohrig, a 1977 WVU Law graduate, runs his own general practice law firm in the small town of Middlebourne, West Virginia.
“County courts all want certain things done a certain way, and a new attorney can’t be afraid to ask questions. There are so many small things I could not have known without asking. Every lawyer I’ve met so far, even if they were opposing council, has been helpful.”
For Bennett, practicing law in a rural area like Grant County (pop. 11,616) means empowering people to stay, live and work in places where they grew up by giving them local resources. His virtual practice is busy and he is seeing steady work, but he feels like his efforts are only putting a small dent in a larger problem.
“In rural areas, many services are often neglected, legal services included,” he said. “If a person can’t access legal services, they may end up going without their right to justice.”
Meet Nathan and Sarah
Nathan Bennett is from Denver, Colorado. He earned a bachelor's degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice in 2017 from Western State Colorado University. During law school, Bennett worked in the Public Defender's Office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Sarah Petitto graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. As a law student, she worked as a Public Interest Advocates Fellow at Legal Aid of West Virginia.
The Rural Practice Scholarship was established through the WVU Foundation in conjunction with “A State of Minds: The Campaign for West Virginia’s University.” The fundraising effort, which ended December 2017, raised more than $1.2 billion for the university.