U.S. states may have cultural, social and economic characteristics distinct from one another. But one access to justice crisis ties them together: legal deserts. Just about every state has geographic swaths with few or no lawyers, often forcing people to travel across counties for legal representation for matters ranging from criminal defense to common needs such as divorce.
The American Bar Association highlights the prevalence of legal deserts in its 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession and discussed the issue in a panel held on Zoom July 28. The report puts legal deserts into stark context: One in four lawyers are in New York or California. Forty percent of U.S. county and county equivalents have less than one lawyer per 1,000 people. More than 50 county and county equivalents have no lawyers, including Crowley County in Colorado.
Panelists included Lisa Pruitt, Patrick Goetzinger and Lauren Sudeall. Pruitt is a professor at UC Davis and the lead author of a 2018 report on legal deserts in the Harvard Law & Policy Review. Sudeall is a law professor and director of the Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University and a co-author of the report. Goetzinger helped lead the creation of Project Rural Practice in South Dakota, a program that pays direct incentives to attorneys who commit to working for five years in a county with the most extreme need.
Goetzinger said he knows it won’t be possible for every county to eventually have an abundance of lawyers, but he said he hopes in the next decade Project Rural Practice will have made incremental differences in access to legal representation by persuading the participants to stay in the communities they have started their practices in. The program has 32 revolving spots, doubling its original capacity with expanded support from the legislature, South Dakota’s chief justice and the state bar association’s fundraising arm.
“We hope to see those lawyers … continue to provide legal services to those rural areas and continue the tradition of being a leader in access to justice in rural communities,” Goetzinger said.
Other states have also made progress on developing programs to encourage lawyers working in rural areas. Nebraska has a program for financially supporting students to go to college and then law school in the state, and Sudeall said Georgia State University is working to develop a rural externship program.
Sudeall said she believes more research on the economics of law practice, such as student debt and fee structures, that affect attorneys’ decisions about where to work could provide clues about how to build a financially viable practice in rural areas.
“I think there’s a lot of research that could be done about what models are best for how to structure [a] practice; what elements would actually make it more likely that you will have a financially sustainable practice in these areas?” she said.
Pruitt said addressing legal deserts doesn’t start and end with strategies specifically for attracting more attorneys to work in rural areas. Adequate economic infrastructure such as grocery stores and schools is also key for making a community livable.
“There are lots of other components to rural communities, like grocery stores and schools and post offices, and these are all institutions that we see under threat,” she said. “There’s a feedback loop in a given community, and it’s either going to be … one of growth or it’s going to be one of loss.”
Pruitt admitted she looks at the access to justice shortfalls caused by legal deserts from a glass-half-empty perspective, saying the crisis has the potential to get worse in the near future. She said the COVID-19 pandemic forcing businesses to shut down could worsen rural access to attorneys. The risk is especially tied to the aging of the legal profession, she said, because attorneys within a few years of retirement may decide to absorb the pandemic’s disruption to their business by retiring early.
“If we don’t act, this problem is only going to get worse. We’re already in a situation where large swaths of rural America are, to use an old expression, drying up and blowing away,” Pruitt said. “And as a nation, if we value those communities and all the things that they provide for us, including food, timber and extracted industries, having lawyers in these communities is going to be something that we’re going to have to work at.”
Sudeall said closing access to justice gaps also calls for reframed thinking about when situations really require lawyers and when non-lawyers can help meet needs, though she said she knows that’s probably not a popular position to take speaking to the bar association. “I think and I hope that we can have a broader understanding of … who is part of the legal profession and different ways of thinking about measuring access to justice, not just by looking at lawyers as this binary ‘Do you have a lawyer or not?’ question, but thinking about how open and how accessible our systems [are].”