Friday, July 14, 2017

Location, location, location: rural law schools and their role in the rural lawyer shortage

Location, Location, Location - a familiar mantra to most of us. It refers to the idea that location is a very important determining factor in the success of a given project or initiative. In this post, I will explore the role that rural law schools play in addressing the rural lawyer shortage. I will admit that my analysis of this issue will be focused on the eastern United States and I apologize in advance to any readers who may feel that I am ignoring great initiatives in the West.

Rural law schools are a relatively rare thing and understandably so. Law schools want to be in locations where internships, externships, and clerkships are easily accessible. Students, after all, expect a return on their law school investment and think that attending a law school where there are plethora of job opportunities will give them the best opportunity to make this happen. Even law schools associated with rural colleges are often placed in urban areas. We see this is in North Carolina with Elon and Campbell Universities, whose law schools are located in Greensboro and Raleigh respectively. In fact, when Campbell University moved their law school from their campus in Buies Creek in Harnett County, NC to downtown Raleigh in 2007, the move was justified by school administrators as a move designed to give students greater access to judges and law firms. The board chairman even said that the "world is changing" and that the move to Raleigh was in the best interests of the school.

There is the understandable idea that we have too many law schools. Much like lawyers, law schools are increasingly concentrated in just a handful of urban centers. For example:

  • The City of New York and Long Island, NY have 10 ABA accredited law schools (11, if you count Pace just to the north in White Plains). There are only 4 (Syracuse, Buffalo, Albany, and Cornell) in the rest of the state and only Cornell is located in what may be considered a rural community (but even that is stretching the definition of rural). 
  • 7 out of the 9 law schools in Massachusetts are located in the Boston metropolitan area and only 1 out of the 9 is located west of I-495.  
  • In the rest of New England, only Vermont Law School in South Royalton would qualify as particularly rural.
  • North Carolina has 8 law schools, not a single one is located in a rural part of the state and all are clustered along the I-40 and I-85 corridor in Central North Carolina. 
  • Virginia also has 8 law schools, and two are located in rural communities, Washington and Lee in Lexington and Appalachian Law in Grundy. 
With only ~50% of law graduates getting long-term legal jobs, it may seem obvious that reducing the number of law schools would result in a favorable outcome. However, is it possible that law schools, like lawyers, are distributed in a manner that encourages economically inefficient clustering in urban centers?

Lawyering - an urban profession

Data from the Occupational Employment Statistics within the Bureau of Labor Statistics bears out the idea that lawyers are disproportionately urban and that rural areas are facing a dramatic shortage. As mentioned in an earlier post, only one non-metropolitan area has a location quotient of >1.0, Southwestern Montana. In fact, looking at the maps embedded in the link I just provided, you can pinpoint metropolitan areas by looking for the darkly shaded regions on the location quotient map. Even in historically predominantly rural states like West Virginia, lawyers tend to congregate in urban centers like Charleston, which has a concentration of lawyers that is almost twice the national average.

What about rural students? Wouldn't they be good candidates for rural practice?

The best analysis of this that I have seen came from this piece, co-authored by our own Lisa Pruitt, that examined Arkansas and students at the University of Arkansas. I do not want to duplicate their work but I do want to mention one takeaway, there are relatively few students from rural communities attending law school.

The University of Nebraska is attending to address this and recently announced the creation of the Rural Law Opportunities Program, which will give high school graduates from rural Nebraska scholarships to attend one of three state universities and provided they meet certain criteria, admission into the University of Nebraska School of Law. As their website notes, 11 out of Nebraska's 93 counties have no lawyers at all. This is one approach to addressing this shortage.

Rural students are underrepresented in higher education more broadly. According to the New York Times, only 29 percent of rural 18-24 year olds are enrolled in higher education, a figure which pales in comparison to 47 percent of their urban and suburban peers. Further, undergraduate institutions are only now starting to actively recruit rural students. Even if law schools try to recruit rural students, absent a pipeline program like what the University of Nebraska has pioneered, they are going to find the pool a bit shallower than they may want.

The role of the rural law school

There is perhaps no more better exposure to an issue than being immersed in it. A student, attending a law school in an urban center, can go through their entire law school career without being exposed to any rural issues and never be provided with a reason to consider practicing there.

A student attending a law school in a rural community, such as South Royalton, Vermont or Grundy, Virginia, has the opportunity to be immersed in the local environment and have contact with local attorneys, local courts, and the problems of rural people. Rural schools can facilitate this exposure by offering legal clinics, as Vermont Law School does. Prolonged first hand exposure is perhaps the best way to help someone decide whether or not they want to practice in a given area.

The onus is on the rural law school however to make sure that these opportunities are available. It is possible to attend school in a rural community and learn little about rural practice, especially if a person leaves to extern in a larger city during the summer. The law school existing in a rural space is not enough, it has to try to integrate the students into their surroundings and it has to create partnerships with local attorneys and government agencies to make this possible.

Even if a person decides not to stay in a rural area after attending law school however, being in the area and working with the local legal system will make them more aware of the issue and the fact that the shortage needs to be addressed. Many of my friends, including those who attended law school, are unaware that there is even a shortage. Many of them, believing the news reports about the lawyer surplus, assume that the market is universally oversaturated with lawyers. Someone with first hand experience learning the law and working in a rural community would be able to see this for themselves and it would increase awareness of this issue. The hope is that these people will advocate for policies, such as increasing legal aid funding, that will lead to an increase in the supply of lawyers in a rural community.

I will admit a limitation to this idea. In my own research of the quantitative data behind the rural lawyer shortage, I have not seen any correlation between non-metropolitan areas where law schools are located and an increase in local lawyers but I concede that getting access to county level data may help me understand this better. Right now, my answer to this is inconclusive.

Would more rural law schools be a net positive?

There is little empirical data that could definitely answer this question. We certainly do not need more law schools more generally. However, relocation of some law schools out of urban centers and into rural communities could have favorable outcomes. For example, if Campbell University were to move back to Buies Creek, North Carolina, it may increase the number of people interested in working in rural North Carolina and alleviate the glut of law schools in the Research Triangle area. On a bigger stage, if a law school in Boston or New York were to move to a surrounding rural community, it would lessen the amount of law schools in these cities and also be a benefit to the rural communities that they would relocate to. It would also provide people interested in rural practice with a place to study and work and a place for people who may never have considered rural practice to live and learn.

There is little question however that the current distribution of law schools is overwhelmingly urban and that prospective lawyers are gaining little exposure to rural practice and rural problems. We also know that rural students are not attending law school (or college for that matter) at a comparable rate to their urban and suburban peers. These factors limit the ability to train and recruit people to work in rural communities.


Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Thanks for your post, Christopher. It reminds me of this story from the NYTimes in 2011, about Kansas State Medical School, which located in Salina, Kansas in hopes that some of the students would decide to "stay rural."

UC Davis Medical School now has a rural stream/program called "Rural Prime" that sends medical students to work in rural communes for at least six months as part of their training.

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