So, the rural lawyer population is dwindling and there is a legal desertification creeping across small town USA – so what, it can’t be that big a deal what with the internet, on-line legal services and all.
Yet, as Maria Kefalas points out in her book “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America,” the lack of lawyers (and other professionals) is one of those 10,000 cuts that can slowly kill a community. It seems that when little, common place things start to get a bit more difficult – things like: getting a divorce, managing a business, resolving civil disputes, or defending criminal cases – small towns take a hit; a lack of lawyers isn’t the death-blow, but it is a symptom of a potentially terminal disease.
This legal desertification can have a real economic impact. Based on a 2013 study by Dr. Joseph C. Von Nessen, your average lawyer has an economic multiplier of 1.6 or to put in slightly more concrete terms: if a lawyer spends $1000 a month to run his practice, the community sees $1600 in total economic activity. Granted, Dr. Von Nessen’s study only covered South Carolina and the numbers for your particular state may vary but the point is, lawyers feed small town economies.
Then there are the governmental costs; a lack of local lawyers means that small town governments and public entities (school boards, county commissioners, etc.) must pay outside lawyers to travel into town to handle local affairs. Rural courthouses are not exempt from these travel expenses – trying a case locally can mean paying for the judge’s, prosecutor’s, and public defender’s drive time. These costs can strain local budgets in the best of times.
Now the lack of a lawyer may not be much of a problem for those small bedroom communities that cluster around cities like chicks around a hen; after all the daily commute puts lawyers within easy reach. But for those small towns out beyond suburbia’s sprawl, where the drive time into the “city” is measured in hours, local lawyers matter.
While the senior leadership of the Georgia Bar Association work on plans for a lawyer incubator (a small pilot program) and a rural lawyer assistance plan (now in the hands of the state legislature), the bar’s Young Lawyers Division have launched the Succession Planning Pilot Program with the idea of matching successful, practicing, small city or rural lawyers with young lawyers and recent graduates looking for positions.
The program leverages existing resources available at the state’s law school’s career services and addresses two of the chief concerns of a fledgling rural lawyer – the lack of mentors and the need to develop a sustainable practice – while giving established rural lawyers a pipeline of interested, qualified successors.
A Rural Lawyer tip of the hat to small town lawyer Sharon Edenfield for bringing this idea to fruition.
Even if one counts judges, prosecutors, public defenders, county and city attorneys and all the other categories of lawyers not generally available to the general public, there would still be 6 counties in Georgia that lack lawyers and a couple of dozen counties with fewer than 5 lawyers (see this article).
So, on Saturday, the State Bar of Georgia Board of Governors approved a plan to attract private civil attorneys to rural areas by offering state-funded repayment of law school loans to any attorney who moves to an underserved rural community. Even through the plan was described as “a great idea”, “a great idea”, and “mom & apple pie” it’s passage was not without some debate (see this article).
Frankly, these types of assistance programs are a good first step, but there needs to be more in place if young lawyers are going to succeed in rural practices; things like mentorship programs and community buy-in. It also would help if there were clear ethical guidelines on the use of technological innovations like client portals and virtual law offices. There needs to be an effort made to show the potential rural lawyer that practicing in a county that’s more pine barrens that people can be profitable, not just sustainable; that it can be a career rather than a set number of years of pro bono and ramen before moving on to better things and bigger law.
My hat’s off to the Georgia Bar for taking that first step. I wish them success and I hope they continue to help young lawyers build rural practices.
Out here in the little law office on the prairie fall brings cooler weather, shorter days, and the rush to get crops in, equipment put up, and the homestead battened down for the up-coming winter. It’s a time when we relearn the lesson that firewood warms you 3 times – once when you cut it, once when you split it, and once when you burn it. Fall also seems to bring a upswing in inquires about rural practices as newly fledged lawyers (my congratulations on passing the bar) start to contemplate the possibility (inevitability?) of a solo or small firm practice. With that in mind, I offer a few answers to some frequently asked questions.
Is there a need for rural lawyers?
Well, I think so, but honestly it depends on the state. Some states, like South Dakota and Nebraska, are actively seeking rural lawyers while in others it’s going to be up to the individual lawyer to find a place to practice. But fear not, the demand is growing. The current crop of rural lawyers are fast approaching retirement and there are few replacements waiting in the wings. Continue reading
Courthouse, Valley City, ND, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,LC-USZ62-73197
Granted, the human population of North Dakota tends to be spread a bit thin, but when 21 counties have fewer than 4 attorneys (4 counties have no lawyers , 8 counties only have 1), access to justice is problematic and a lawyer’s retirement can have far-reaching consequences.
One way to solve the problem is to follow the town of Wishek’s example and directly recruit attorneys (See Wishek Wants You). Another way is to make law students and young lawyers aware of the benefits and opportunities that are available in small towns and rural areas, and that’s the approach that the North Dakota Bar Association, in partnership with the state courts, and the University of North Dakota Law School, is taking.
Using funding provided by the North Dakota Legislature, this partnership created three summer clerkships designed to allow law students to work for judges in counties with less than 15,000 people. While this is still just a pilot program, the program hopes to expand and provide not only clerkships, but externships with State’s Attorneys and private practitioners.
If you’re wondering what a lawyer in the wilds of North Dakota possible do, Judge Gail Hagerty puts it this way:
There are real legal needs out there: more oil and gas law, an increasing amount of probate matters, more crimes to deal with, and more need for family law. Right now, without immediate access to legal services, it’s very difficult for people, and it can increase costs. We also need more attorneys to do indigent defense work, we need more prosecutors and we need more new practitioners. There’s a lot of potential in rural communities.
There’s a lot more probate work, for example, with property that wasn’t probated for generations, Now we need to clearly establish ownership of the land and mineral rights. Some of that land was once thought not to be worth very much, but it’s suddenly worth a lot more.
From family law to probate, from business law to energy law, from criminal defense to prosecution – seems like those new rural lawyers are going to be busy.
A hat tip to: