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.
There is a new resource out there for rural lawyers and the communities they serve. Rural Law is setting out to simplify access to legal information and solutions to rural america and the small town lawyers who practice there.
Currently, the web site concentrates on providing legal resources for the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The site provides links to quality resources as well as contact information for small town lawyers. The contact information is a bit sparse, but Patrick Burns, the lawyer behind Rural Law, is continuously adding new information as he discovers it (if you are a small town lawyer, you may want to give him a call and help build the network).
For those of you who have moved from their libraries into the digital domain, Becoming a Rural Lawyer is now available for Kindle.
In related news, I see that a used copy of my book is currently being listed at $116.17. While I am flattered that someone out there values my little tome so highly, I’d just like to point out that list price is still only $28.50 for a brand-spanking new one (contact me if you want an autographed version). So, not only can my book help you get your small town practice up and running, it’s an appreciable asset as well.