Sunday, September 13, 2015

Finding new rural lawyers

Imagine living in a place where there is not one practicing attorney within 100 miles of your home. This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke about lawyers, but the reality of the situation is less than humorous. Unfortunately, not having any local attorneys can have some very negative consequences for residents of some rural communities.

The majority of today’s population now lives in urban settings. More and more people are leaving small rural towns for larger cities. In 2000, 21.0% of the total US population lived in rural areas. In 2010, the figure was down to 19.3%. Even though there is a trend towards urban living, approximately 1/5 of the population still resides in rural areas. According to the New York Times, only 2 percent of small law practices are in these rural areas.

With such a disproportionate number of rural residents to attorneys practicing in those areas, several issues can arise with respect to access to legal services. The most obvious problem is that the people cannot easily access legal assistance. Many people in rural areas cannot afford to meet with an attorney.  The cost of gas to drive to the city (assuming that they have transportation) or missing a day’s work on top of any legal expenses they might incur once they obtain an attorney is simply too much for some rural inhabitants.

When people do not have access to attorneys, they may choose to not seek legal remedies or might try to represent themselves. When people without a legal education try to represent themselves, the results are rarely in their favor. In addition, having people represent themselves can slow down the court system.  An Arkansas study reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette substantiates this.

The budgets of rural counties and small communities are also strained by an absence of local attorneys. Already stressed local governments have to foot the bill for judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to travel to the county seat to handle local cases.

The problem with the lack of rural attorneys does not stem from a shortage of attorneys in the United States. In fact, an abundance of new attorneys are not in positions where bar passage is required. In 2014, approximately 10 months after graduation, only 59.9% were employed in full-time, bar-required positions, with 9.8% unemployed. The question is how to attract some of the roughly 40% of new graduates who are not employed full time in bar-required positions to move to rural areas to practice law.

In 2013, South Dakota became the first state to pass a law to attract new attorneys to rural areas. To be eligible for the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program, attorneys must make a five-year commitment to practice in a county with a population of less than 10,000. In return, they would receive an annual subsidy of $12,000, which is equivalent to 90% of the cost of a year of tuition at the University of South Dakota School of Law. Part of this plan is to pair new attorneys with mentors and to help spouses obtain employment as well.

Partially inspired by the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program, Legal Aid of Arkansas have grants from the American Bar Association that they are using to alleviate the lack of rural attorneys in their state.  In Nebraska, the Nebraska State Bar Association's (NSBA) Rural Practice Initiative created a bus tour to connect law students and new attorneys with rural attorneys and business leaders throughout the state.  The NSBA has also created a summer externship program to help place students in firms in the rural areas of the state.  The In other parts of the country, small towns and counties are paying for office space and business expenses for young lawyers that agree to move to their area.

These programs are a good way to get the ball rolling on this issue, but they are far from a perfect solution. South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Plan addresses the issue of debt, but not of income. After working five years in a rural community and having most of their debt paid off, what is to keep the lawyer in the community? Surely some would stay because of family or maybe a sense of community, but it seems almost inevitable that some would leave and work for a firm in the city where they could make more money. The experience they gained through the recruitment program would make them more attractive as candidates for associate positions than they might have been fresh out of law school. Therefore, some would use this program as a way to further their careers and pay off debt instead of using it to establish a rural practice to which they are committed for the long run.

As the population trends indicate, more people are moving to urban areas. Much of what attracts new law school graduates to urban areas is the lifestyle which it provides. Urban areas provide entertainment and the arts, dating opportunities for single people, job opportunities for spouses of recent graduates, and a higher income for those that find jobs. Instead of focusing on recruiting recent graduates for the rural programs, more focus should be spent on incentivizing people who want to live in rural areas to attend law school.

Because most law school graduates are in their 20s, urban life may seem more appealing to them, and it may be harder to incentivize that group to settle into rural life. In addition to the programs for young attorneys, some effort should be made to attract older and more experienced attorneys to rural areas. Attorneys with families who want a better life/work balance or a desire to raise their children away from the city, or older attorneys who are tired of working for bigger firms might just need a little nudge to make the move. Loan repayment might be helpful for some, while some sort of tax break might be the right incentive for an older attorney to set up a practice in a rural area. We should strive to not only attract young attorneys, but to attract experienced attorneys to rural areas to ensure that the rural population has access to experienced attorneys for both the short and the long term.

For more in depth information on this topic, see Law Stretched Thin: Access to Justice in Rural America, and Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas.

For more blog posts on this topic, see here, here, here, and here.  For a post about the lack of rural lawyers in Japan, see here.   For a discussion of how Skype and similar technologies can help with the rural lawyer shortage, see here.


Daniel Quinley said...

I am struck by the level of effort expended by some states to attract attorneys to their rural areas (South Dakota, Arkansas). Is there any value in establishing something akin to "Teach for America" for rural lawyers? And if such a program were to work--what incentives should they use? Student loan forgiveness (perhaps, a percentage of the loan for each year the attorney practices in a rural area? A flat rate?). Usually, I am a fan of states taking care of their internal challenges, but the lack of rural lawyers seems to be more than a regional problem.

Tangential to that, is that anything that can be learned from the American Indian experience? Reservations, and the expansion of law onto reservations, is extremely complicated, and hasn't been incredibly successful in delivering legal aid to those who need it. Are there other, mostly rural countries, that we can look to for ideas? Or is this problem so under the radar and marginalized, and let's face, lacking in the glamour of urban poverty, that the states or Federal government will be forced to innovate?

Dakota Sinclair said...

I agree with Dan that the level of effort is striking. It appears that in some states there are efforts to makeup for the lack of attorneys. I agree that incentives help but I think the hidden issue is that will lead to continuing the cycle of gentrification and widening the gap between the have and have-nots.

Perhaps schools should be focused on recruiting rural students who are unlikely to leave their roots, such as middle aged mothers or fathers, to work part-time in the areas. It isn't a solid fix but it would help to alleviate some of the problem.

Another fix would be for states to offer to pay for attorneys from urban centers to drive out for a week at a time to stay in rural areas, handle the problems, then return home. If doesn't bind a lawyer to a specific place, but it helps bring talent in.

Alexandra said...

Very good article about New Rural Lawyers.
I was kind of looking for something like this to share with the lawyers at my school.