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Impoverished persons living in rural areas are often overlooked in the delivery of legal services, despite the prevalence and persistence of poverty in these areas. According to the 2000 Census, rural counties with poverty rates above the national average outnumber urban counties in that category at nearly a 5 to 1 ratio. Of the 500 poorest counties in the country, 459 are rural, and, of the 500 lowest per capita income counties, 481 are rural.
Despite this overwhelming need for pro bono services, however, rural lawyers have unique limitations on providing such services. These limitations include conflicts of interest, multi-district registration requirements, fewer support staff, and greater travel demands. Staff-based rural legal aid programs face similar difficulties because they cover a wider geographic region with fewer personnel than urban legal aid programs. Plus, for their part, rural clients also face greater challenges accessing legal services due to scarce resources, transportation problems, and a general lack of information about legal help.
In 1999, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and its project, the Center for Pro Bono, concluded that the current pro bono support community, rural clients, and lawyers in solo or small law firm practice settings would all benefit from a project designed to increase volunteer participation and build connections between rural and urban lawyers. With financial support from the Open Society Institute, the Center for Pro Bono launched the Rural Pro Bono Delivery Initiative in 2000. The major goals of the Rural Pro Bono Delivery Initiative were to:
The Rural Pro Bono Delivery Initiative generated new resources, ideas, and volunteers by awarding mini-grants to help rural programs develop new strategies for delivering rural pro bono legal services, building a support system for rural advocates, capitalizing on innovative technology, and improving collaboration with urban pro bono programs.
As part of the Rural Pro Bono Delivery Initiative, the Center for Pro Bono published Rural Pro Bono Delivery: A Guide to Pro Bono Legal Services in Rural Areas . The Guide is designed as a resource for legal services providers, bar associations and volunteer lawyer programs looking for ways to serve clients in rural areas and strengthen the support system for pro bono advocates who help rural clients. The Guide contains much useful information, including an analysis of the barriers to rural legal services delivery, examples of strategies that have been used successfully by many projects to deliver pro bono legal services to rural clients, and links to other rural resources. Many of the rural pro bono delivery methods highlighted in this manual received funding during the two mini-grant rounds of the Rural Pro Bono Delivery Initiative. This Guide highlights successful models for serving the legal needs of particular segments of the rural poor population and develops pro bono delivery strategies that serve the entire rural poor community.
Although the Rural Pro Bono Delivery Initiative sunset in 2003, the Center for Pro Bono continues its work in supporting the work of pro bono programs in delivering legal services to the rural poor.
The Center for Pro Bono maintains an extensive Clearinghouse Library of over 4,000 documents (articles, reports, studies and news clippings) pertaining to pro bono related matters with a focus on pro bono program management. Each document is summarized and recorded in the Clearinghouse database, which is now searchable from the web at www.abaprobono.org. The Center maintains a Rural Pro Bono Clearinghouse. Under the “rural delivery” classification, the Clearinghouse Library houses the following types of rural materials: general analyses of rural delivery, information on urban/rural partnerships, program descriptions, program manuals, statistics, and surveys.
For more information on rural pro bono or the Clearinghouse Library, you may contact Center staff at firstname.lastname@example.org