|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)|
"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|
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.