To Know What One Ought To Do

Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do. Saint Thomas Aquinas Two Precepts of Charity

It is National Pro Bono Week and if you are here for that up-beat, positive, celebratory post you’ve come to the wrong place – there is a crying need for pro bono services in rural areas which, for the most part, is going largely unanswered and that is just plain depressing.

The need is very real – based on 2000 Census data, 459 of the 500 poorest counties in the nation are rural, 481 of the 500 counties with the lowest per-capita income are rural, and rural counties with poverty rates above the national average outnumber urban counties by 5 to 1. The rural poor are more likely to be married and more likely to be working than their urban counterparts, but they are also more likely to be generationally poor and chronically under-employed as well.

The problem is very real – an ABA survey shows that only 20 percent of lawyers live in towns/areas with populations of less 50,000 or less, and that distance and travel demands, lack of technology and associated infrastructure, and lack of supporting resources constrain the availability of pro bono services. The prevailing perception seems to be that because no one lives in rural counties and even if they did their legal problems are so trivial that it is not worth expending resources in these areas. It is a case of too few, too small, too hard, why bother.

The issues are complex – the rural poor’s issues cannot simply be addressed on the courthouse steps; a legal issue does not stand alone, there are economic and community issues to be addressed as well. For example, domestic violence victims are faced with access problems to shelters, inappropriate information-sharing (or to be less PC – gossip and rumors) between community members and members of the legal system. Many victims often care for livestock – another roadblock to their getting to safety as few if any shelters are equipped to board a herd of cattle. For the rural farmer and the family farm the continually changing maze of state and federal regulations create roadblocks to timely access to adequate operating credit which leads to families barely scraping by economically and creates an ever present threat of foreclosure and dispossession. Foreclosure is not simply a blot on the rural farmer’s credit rating – it often means the loss of a home, of a family’s generational history, of a means of employment, and position in the community. These are not problems that can be solved with a well crafted defense or a timely TRO, they require a much more holistic approach.

The good news is that the legal profession has begun to recognize the problem – OK, but now what? How do we get the modern, high tech, uber-connected, well-intentioned lawyer to direct hers/his pro bono efforts away from that comfortable (relatively) legal clinic and towards that turn-of-the-century, low tech, unconnected, uncomfortable barnyard?

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9 thoughts on “To Know What One Ought To Do

  1. I too am working in rural Minnesota, and I’ve often wondered about the need for pro bono services here. All of the “official” pro bono programs would involve me driving myself to a more metropolitan area to serve their needs.

    You are too right that there is a great need for legal services in our rural communities, and truly, why shouldn’t there be? Rural people carry on with busy lives and business arrangements just like their urban counterparts. The fact that the population is less dense shouldn’t mean they have no access to professional services.

    I’d love to hear more about your ideas of how to do pro bono work in rural areas. I’m already here…I may as well focus my efforts here too.

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  3. As you note, distance and density are the big stumbling blocks for rural pro bono. The traditional model pro bono model where lawyers and clients converge on a centralized clinic does not work well with a small population distributed over a large area. High per-client-served costs discourage funding sources, long travel time discourage participation and, administrative overhead and liability concerns discourage individual firms from offering services on their own.

    Recently, I’ve been wondering if adapting the “librarymobile” concept might serve as a way to provide efficient pro bono services to rural areas. A “lawmobile” could be outfitted with a satellite-based internet & phone connections, and could be divided into a couple of (small) offices and a (small) reception area. The lawmobile could then “ride circuit” – bringing a team of volunteers to small rural towns on a fixed, predictable schedule. I wouldn’t be surprised if this has already been tried somewhere – if anyone knows of a lawmobile program please let me know. What do you think, would a lawmobile work to serve your community?

  4. Now a law mobile is an interesting idea. I’ve not heard it described that way, but really that’s the way that many small towns have been traditionally served by lawyers and other professionals. An attorney from a larger city rents an office space and comes by once a week or less often for a few hours, maybe in a bank, a conference room, or a mostly-closed Main Street location.

    Who would pay for the lawmobile though? It seems as though fixed costs would be high–the RV/bus, insurance, the satellite internet and phone.

    I like your fixed, predictable schedule idea though. What about doing something lower cost but in a similar fashion? Maybe meeting in a conference area at public libraries or schools?

    One of the benefits I see in rural areas is that people are very creative about pitching in and keeping costs low. You see it every day in the types of hands-on volunteer work that happens in small towns. I’d imagine civic leaders might be willing to partner with local attorneys to make something happen without a lot of expense.

  5. The lawmobile concept is more a thought experiment than anything else. I am simply borrowing on a model that already works for providing typically centralized services to rural communities. Were I to try to implement such a beast, I’d look to a combination of foundation and government grants to fund the initial start-up expenses, perhaps ask satellite providers to either donate their services or at least provide them at a reduced fee. Perhaps ask the local communities to provide “gas money”. While it would take some innovative and out-of-the-box thinking, I think that it would be possible to come up with the necessary funding.

    The biggest catch to the lawmobile concept, or with holding meetings at public venues (libraries, schools, town halls, churches) would be privacy issues. In small towns, gossip can travel faster than light and if one were seen entering a “free” legal clinic news of that event and the associated speculation about one’s financial and legal problems would be public knowledge shortly after the door was closed. This might put a damper on utilization. The lawmobile might have an advantage here as it might be considered to fall into the category of “private office” rather than “public building” in which case only speculation as to one’s legal problems would be fodder for the grapevine.

  6. The rumor mill is a serious factor in utilization of low-cost or public services in small towns. It’s such a unique phenomenon, I wonder if urban grant-making organizations would even be able to understand how much it affects what people do–for good and bad. I believe that same gossipy nature is what keeps crime rates lower. You’re more accountable to one another in a small town. Anyway, I digress. Yes, it would be a factor in any sort of rural pro bono plans.

  7. Our firm is considering a virtual office to allow clients access to our legal services a la carte. One purpose behind this is to help those who cannot afford a full-service legal approach. It has crossed my mind to find a way to offer the same a la carte services pro bono. The difficulty, of course, is identifying those who cannot afford to pay from those who can. After we complete the virtual law firm platform (and if we like it!), we may try to work through some existing organization whose clients can use the organization’s computers to access our on-line, virtual services. I would be very interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts or comments.

  8. I think that there are a couple of hurdles (neither is insurmountable) to using a virtual office to provide legal services to rural areas. The first is that reliable high speed internet is not universally available. While high speed internet is coming to rural areas, it is not coming quickly and when it does come, it is not the always available, always on, inexpensive information pipeline it is in metropolitan areas. Rural internet access is quite expensive (in my neck of the woods, 256 kbps DSL has yet to drop below $80/month) and service providers are often reluctant to upgrade hardware or increase capacity once the initial installation phase is complete (this can be usually be read as “when the government grants run out”).

    The second hurdle is the generally conservative nature of rural communities and their general inclination to transact important business face-to-face. These are communities where a man’s word and a handshake still mean something – often to the point of people dismissing contracts and contractual terms as “just pieces of paper”. My guess is that any business serious enough to send someone to a lawyer is not going to be something to be entrusted to the internet – it may be OK to shop on line for garden seeds, but these folks want to see their lawyer.

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