Tuesday, April 10, 2018

During this week 5 years ago - New York Times highlights rural lawyer shortage

Facebook's On This Day feature is often a treasure trove of old memories and items that you thought important to share at one point in your life. Today as I looked through my memories, I found that I shared this article from the New York Times five years ago. At the time, I was a 1L at Michigan State University and incredibly excited to see that the Times had opted to cover an issue that I considered very important. Many of the issues addressed in this article have been expanded upon in this space on various occasions but I still think that it is important to share again because it highlighted, for a mass audience, so many of the issues that many of us care about. This also seems like a great opportunity to reflect on this issue, why it's important, and how it connects to other issues of rurality. I recommend this article to anyone who needs a primer on why this issue is important but may be unfamiliar with the underlying issues.

There's a quote in the article that I cite frequently when I discuss this issue with people who are unfamiliar with why we should care about rural legal inequalities, "[a] hospital will not last long with no doctors, and a courthouse and judicial system with no lawyers faces the same grim future[.]" This quote from South Dakota chief justice David Gilbertson epitomizes why this issue is important and why we should continue to work until we have come up with a way to solve it. The ability to access justice is paramount for the survival of any community. When justice is inaccessible, the most vulnerable in our societies suffer the most and the bonds of cohesion that ties small towns together begin to weaken.

When trying to address the shortage, it is important to remember that this is also an incredibly complex issue that demands an interdisciplinary approach. The rural lawyer shortage is an outgrowth of many of the other issues affecting rural communities. To begin to study the issue, we need an understanding of:

  • The role of economic development in the growth of a regional legal market, which requires an understanding of economics. 
  • The general social structure of rural spaces, which requires an understanding of sociology. In fact, Thomas Barnett Jr., the Executive Director of the State Bar of South Dakota, noted in the linked article that rural lawyers serve not just in the official capacity as lawyers but, because of their status as lawyers, also serve other roles within rural communities. If you are going to understand the rural lawyer shortage, you need to understand the unique role that rural lawyers play in their communities.
  • That lawyers are also important political actors in rural communities so we need an understanding of political science. Even if a lawyer is not a politician, they still need to understand the local political dynamics in order to be change agents for their clients. In small towns, all politics are local. An organization could not just put a lawyer into a rural space without ensuring that they understand the local political dynamics and how to maximize their effectiveness.
  • The role of changing demographics in shaping America, particularly the affects of out-migration and the brain drain on making rural America older and less educated than other areas of the country. 
  • The law, particularly an understanding of the right to counsel in criminal cases and the disastrous effects of being pro bono in civil litigation

We have seen great progress on this issue over the past five years and other states have joined the call to address the rural lawyer shortage. I am currently working on a project that seeks to create greater awareness of this issue and work with public officials to address it. It was great re-reading this article, particularly because of its importance to my work and its role in bringing greater attention to this issue more broadly.

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