Colorado’s Legal Deserts Leave Rural Residents Without Representation
The Front Range has no shortage of attorneys. But outside, it’s a different picture.

by Julia Cardi

Denver County alone has about 42% of the state’s active attorneys, according to registration data obtained from the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. But what if a community has few or no private attorneys? Wide swaths of Colorado, mostly counties clustered around the southern and eastern parts of the state, could be considered “legal deserts,” creating a challenge for access to justice.

Although there isn’t a precise way to delineate a legal desert, data shows about half of Colorado’s counties have fewer than 25 attorneys, and many have fewer than 10. The numbers of private attorneys in these regions are likely even smaller considering the OARC’s raw data includes judicial officers and public-sector lawyers.

Pierce Fowler is an attorney in Trinidad, where he estimates there are eight or 10 private attorneys. But contract work with the state, in dependency and neglect cases as a guardian ad litem and as respondent parents’ counsel, makes up almost all of his practice. He said if not for the state contract work, he doesn’t think he’d be able to make a living in Trinidad as an attorney because of the area’s poverty. Las Animas County is one of Colorado’s poorer counties, with a median household income of just $41,945 in 2018, according to U.S. Census data.

Fowler understands the difficulty of making a living in a poor rural area. Before moving to Trinidad, Fowler worked in private practice in La Junta. Otero County has even higher poverty than where he lives now, with a median household income of $34,136.

“I spent most of my time hunting down retainers, trying to get collection on bills,
he said. It was really, really hard to make enough money.”

Nonprofits can provide a rare viable option for legal representation in rural areas because they receive funding from sources such as grants and donations instead of relying only on client fees. Jen Cuesta, a rural pro bono program attorney for Colorado Legal Services, said the diversity of funding sources allows CLS to serve low-income clients everywhere in the state. CLS’s offices cover all of Colorado’s 64 counties.

“Every challenge low-income communities face is exacerbated by that geography,” she said.

‘A Societal Problem’

In counties that show at most a few dozen attorneys, and in many areas barely a handful, the raw numbers can belie the true extent of a county’s shortage of access to private representation. The data includes each county’s public-sector attorneys, such as prosecutors, public defenders and county attorneys.

Fowler said of the small handful of private attorneys in Trinidad, several do state contract work and only a few of them take private clients. That means people in the area who do have the money to pay an attorney often need to look to a metropolitan area such as Pueblo or Colorado Springs.

He said he almost always refers cases outside his state contract work to other attorneys because his current work on dependency and neglect cases demands all his time, or he may have a conflict of interest because he frequently works with the Department of Human Services.

“You’ve got to pay someone to drive down here from either Pueblo or Colorado Springs, which obviously, is going to make your bill a lot higher. And this is a poor area,” he said. “It’s a societal issue down here.”

This article appears in the June 22 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read the complete article, and others from that issue, order a copy online.