Wednesday, June 26, 2019

States try to get lawyers to fill 'legal deserts' in rural areas

When Columbus, Nebraska, lawyer Thomas Maul headed the Nebraska State Bar Association in 2016 he was instrumental in getting the state to start a program to recruit lawyers to its rural areas. (Photo by Nati Harnik, The Associated Press)
Though the number of lawyers in America has increased by 14.5 percent since 2009, attorneys in rural America are in short supply. About 2% of small law practices are in small towns and rural areas, according to a 2014 study, and state-level data confirms that lawyers tend to cluster in urban areas.

"Their disproportionate coverage creates 'legal deserts' or patches of the state with few if any lawyers in private practice. Meanwhile, many of the existing rural lawyers are approaching retirement age, with too few law-school graduates moving in to replace them," reports Stateline's April Simpson. "Legal deserts disproportionately affect rural and especially poor people, who may have to travel hundreds of miles, or experience lengthy and expensive delays for routine legal work. Lawyers often handle complicated cases, but also standard fare such as divorces, contract disputes and eviction threats. With limited access to legal representation, vulnerable populations may be exploited by those in positions of power."

Map from Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas, March 2015
Though law schools and some states are encouraging law school graduates to practice in rural areas, it's a difficult sell for the same reason other professionals hesitate to move to rural areas: a tighter job market, lower salary, isolation, and more. And rural lawyers face unique challenges: "Small-town lawyers must be generalists, while the legal profession is becoming more specialized. Rural areas often have poor broadband access, creating technical challenges to accessing legal information," Simpson reports. Also, more rural residents may have a hard time paying for legal services, which means lawyers have a harder time making a living.

In 2017, South Dakota rolled out a five-year pilot program to recruit lawyers to rural areas. It pays lawyers $13,000 a year on top of their salaries to practice in counties with a population of 10,000 or less. Local county governments cover 35% of that, the state pays for 50% and the South Dakota Bar Foundation pays for 15%. Simpson reports that 24 lawyers are in the program.

No other state has such a program, but other tactics are being tried. Nebraska recruits college freshmen, and Arkansas provides lawyers with continuing education and helps them network with rural attorneys and judges, Simpson reports.

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