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May 01, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 5

Success on the horizon? New efforts to increase rural access to justice

By Dan Kittay

When the federal government started offering grants to communities to help them deal with the opioid crisis, Tara Kunkel, who at the time worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, noticed that rural communities were not submitting as many grant applications as their suburban and urban counterparts. This, despite the fact that rural communities were "being disproportionately impacted by the opioid epidemic," Kunkel says.

"We were having trouble getting money to where we needed to get it to," she recalls.

Around the same time, Kristina Bryant and her colleagues at the National Center for State Courts were having an increasing number of conversations about what kinds of federal resources rural justice systems can access, and making sure they were aware of them.

When Kunkel left DOJ in March 2020 and formed Rulo Strategies, her firm connected with the NCSC, and they embarked on an effort to learn as much as they could about what obstacles officials in rural areas face, and what kinds of solutions could be effective. Rulo and the NCSC formed the Rural Justice Collaborative, which focuses on educating people about which solutions they might be able to adopt, and also on encouraging the development of new solutions.

The problem with the lack of grant submissions stemmed from rural communities not having enough people to devote the time to prepare and submit the applications, Kunkel says. "They didn't have the luxury of having grant writers on staff the way that larger communities often do,” she explains. “They didn't have the same capacity in terms of staffing."

The lack of enough people also affects how rural communities can implement programs when they do receive grants, says Bryant, principal court management consultant at the NCSC. "In a suburban or urban community, the work that goes along with actually using that money is typically spread out among multiple departments and people,” she says. “Rural communities don't have that depth of resources available to them. There are some barriers beyond just being successful in getting the money."

The RJC has conducted numerous interviews with officials from rural communities to get a sense of what their biggest concerns are. The group's work is "strength based," Bryant notes. "We often talk about rural communities from a place of, what they do not have available to them? One of the pillars of the work we're trying to do is identifying programming or implementations of work that is being done in rural communities that appear to be working.

“Let's start shining a spotlight on that work and sharing that from community to community."

Toward that end, in October 2021, the RJC identified nine noteworthy innovation sites; one of these is South Dakota’s well-known Rural Attorney Recruitment Program, a partnership between the State Bar of South Dakota and the South Dakota Unified Judicial System. The RJC’s goals for 2022 include identifying more innovation sites, helping leaders in rural justice efforts connect with each other, and developing a research agenda.

The problem of access to justice in rural areas is not new, but some see it as becoming more serious in recent years. Interviews with bars and other organizations reveal a range of efforts designed to get a greater handle on how big the problem is, and also how to help solve or reduce it.

Identifying and eliminating barriers

The Legal Services Corporation created a Rural Justice Task Force in December 2021, with the aim of developing an overview of why there is a shortage of access to justice in rural areas, and promoting solutions, says Ron Flagg, LSC president.

The task force divides the issue into three broad categories, Flagg says. The first category is identifying the barriers to having more legal representation available in rural areas. These include a dispersed population, relatively few lawyers, more poverty in rural areas in general than in suburban and urban areas, and inconsistent availability of broadband internet.

Whether lawyers are based in rural areas or are remotely assisting clients who live there, a lack of fast, reliable internet access presents challenges. It also can prevent people in rural areas from using self-help portals and other online tools. One bit of good news: With the passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021, those interviewed for this article believe the issue is likely to be significantly reduced, if not eliminated as a barrier. (The ABA lobbied on this issue at its 2020 ABA Day; for more information, see “Faced with pandemic, ABA Day in Washington goes digital,” Bar Leader, May-June 2020.)

The second category is identifying successful service delivery models that address those barriers. One approach could be to persuade pro bono lawyers in urban areas to provide virtual service to rural areas, Flagg says. Other possibilities include partnerships between lawyers and local entities such as medical facilities or libraries, where an attorney has a physical presence in an established institution that is already visited often by people who need legal information and help.

The third category is increasing the pipeline of lawyers to live and work in rural areas. The LSC has had a successful summer fellowship program where law students work in LSC-funded entities in rural areas, Flagg says. The LSC will look at expanding that program, and also at bringing in other stakeholders who might be willing to be part of a local effort.

Fellowships bring success

Bars and other groups around the country that are grappling with rural access to justice have been experimenting with some of the approaches outlined by the LSC and the RJC, as well as exploring others.

The Illinois State Bar Association has established the Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative to focus on attracting more lawyers to set up practice in the state's rural areas, says Daniel Thies, committee chair. The committee has looked at what other bars have done and studied the results of various surveys, including the 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession report, which highlighted information about legal deserts in the United States, Thies says.

The committee also listened to complaints from members in rural areas, including those who wanted to sell their practices and retire but could not find lawyers interested in moving to their communities and buying the practices. Data shows that not only do some Illinois counties have only a few lawyers in private practice, but many of those lawyers are 55 years or older and are likely to retire soon.

"That all added up to a real crisis,” Thies says. “What's going to happen in the next 10 years if we don't find some new ways to get attorneys into rural areas? There are going to be so few lawyers that access to justice is really going to be affected."

Effects of the shortage include clients having to travel greater distances to find a lawyer, which in some cases could mean they won't get a lawyer at all, Thies says. Real estate transactions, trusts and estates matters, family law, and business legal issues are all at risk because of the lack of lawyers.

A key group of people whom the ISBA is concerned about is those whose income level is just high enough to prevent them from qualifying for legal aid. “The problem that we've heard about from the legal aid agencies is that as there are fewer private attorneys able to handle those kinds of things, people turn more often to legal aid,” Thies notes. “The burden on the legal aid agencies has increased.”

The committee has created two programs designed to match rural firms seeking lawyers with graduating law students and new lawyers who might be interested in moving to those areas. The Rural Practice Summer Fellows program connects law students with firms in rural areas. Students receive a $5,000 stipend and mentoring geared toward how to practice in rural areas. There is also the Rural Practice Associate Fellows program, which sets up one-year arrangements where firms pay a salary to the new lawyer, and the ISBA pays a stipend of $5,000 at the beginning of the year and an additional $5,000 at the end of the year. Mentoring is also provided.

In 2021, the first year for both programs, 10 associates were hired, and four summer clerks. For 2022, the committee has approved eight associates and five summer clerks, Thies says.

For Blinn Bates, the fellows program was exactly what his firm needed. The firm of three attorneys, based in Lincoln, Ill., was looking to hire an associate and not having luck in finding candidates. Bates heard about the program at a small firm conference and applied. His firm was sent information about six candidates and interviewed four of them. They ended up hiring one, who has worked out well, Bates says.

"That stipend is really helpful,” he notes. “One of the things we ran into was a lot of people coming out of law school wanted these higher salaries [that firms in places like Chicago and St. Louis can offer]. It helped us to be a little more competitive."

Staci Vazquez is a lawyer who entered the fellows program and found a job in Morris, Ill. Vazquez had been a paralegal for 21 years, commuting from rural La Salle County to Chicago or Wheaton for work. When she became a lawyer, she decided she wanted to live and work in a rural area, and not have to make the commute to a larger city.

The stipend allowed her to stay local and earn enough to cover her financial obligations, Vazquez says. Through the program, she attends webinars on legal and networking topics. She has learned a lot through her work at the firm and is glad she was able to participate in the program.

Encouraging diverse lawyers toward rural practice

Many rural areas are suffering from a shortage of lawyers overall; some leaders are also concerned about a lack of diverse lawyers in particular.

"There's a huge gap of diverse attorneys in the central Washington [state] area," says Diana Lopez, coordinator/attorney with the Washington Law Schools Collaborative.

The collaborative, which is funded by a grant from the Law School Admission Council, connects Heritage University—a small university in the central Washington town of Toppenish—with the state’s three law schools: Seattle University School of Law, University of Washington School of Law, and Gonzaga University School of Law.

Heritage's student population is 70 percent Latino and 10 percent Native American, Lopez notes. In the past five years, while many Heritage students have gone on to other types of graduate programs, none have been admitted to any of the state law schools. Lopez says one of the reasons is that most of the students have not learned what is involved in being successful in law school, and why a career in the law can be rewarding and still allow the lawyer to remain in their home community after graduation from law school.

The collaborative aims to change that by providing an intensive, three-week summer program on Heritage's campus, beginning in June. Students will meet state Supreme Court justices, participate in a mock trial, and receive mentoring from community lawyers and judges. Students who complete the program receive a $1,000 stipend. There is no cost to participate in the program. Heritage hopes to have 30 students attend, Lopez says.

This collaborative is focused on encouraging students of color to become lawyers and then practice in the rural areas where they are already at home; for ideas on how bars can help lawyers of color feel comfortable living and working in areas that are not as diverse, please see “What if the bar matches the community … and neither is diverse in race and ethnicity?Bar Leader, January-February 2021.

While most of the work discussed in this article addresses civil access to justice, a report released in 2021 by Vera Institute of Justice noted that criminal justice is an intersectional issue in many rural areas. “Black people are incarcerated at higher rates than white people across the rural-urban spectrum,” Vera’s Incarceration Trends report states. “Although urban areas still have the biggest racial disparities, they have made larger strides in reducing racial disparities over the past three decades than have rural counties and smaller cities, where total incarceration rates today are the highest.”

‘I never knew it was an option for me’

On the other side of the country, the Maine State Bar Association Rural Practice Committee has been focused on bringing together rural firms that want to hire attorneys with recent law school graduates and others who may not be aware of the benefits to living and working in a rural area, says committee Chair Zachary McNally. It starts with making people in rural areas aware that they can have a successful career in the law.

"I'm from a rural area. I never thought about the practice of law because I never knew it was an option for me," McNally says. He ended up working at a law firm after graduate school, and his experience there sparked an interest in attending law school. After earning his JD, McNally moved back to where his family lives; he has been practicing there for six years.

The committee had planned a career fair in a rural area, with local firms getting a chance to meet law school students and recent graduates. The pandemic forced a cancellation, but the MSBA plans to make it an annual event.

One issue that comes up for most rural firms is whether the salary they can offer will allow law school grads to live comfortably and pay off what for many is a sizable amount of law school loan debt.

McNally says that while most new attorneys should be able to make ends meet, there is a caveat: "There is a period, maybe two to four years, where a new attorney is going to be financially vulnerable while they establish themselves in the community and develop their practice." The committee has also focused on supporting legislation that provides tax credits for lawyers practicing in rural areas.

A desert or a land of opportunity?

What's in a name? A lot, says Emy López, director of local bar relations and access to justice at the Colorado Bar Association. Many groups and studies refer to rural areas without enough lawyers as "legal deserts," López says. What’s the problem? "If you call it a desert, no one will want to move there," she believes. The group that is most closely studying the issue, Legal Opportunities in Greater Colorado, refers not to legal deserts but to places outside of the Denver metro area.

One focus for the group is determining what programs are successfully helping to increase access to justice, and then promoting those programs and connecting those who run them with others who may want to emulate them.

"There are a lot of good things going on out there. Not everyone is connected to each other," López says, and the lack of connection can limit the spread of those good ideas.

In Nebraska, there are 12 counties that have no lawyers in private practice, says Sam Clinch, associate executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association, which has run the Rural Practice Initiative since 2013. The program matches firms in rural areas with lawyers and law students who want to either become an associate or be a law clerk for the summer. The NSBA has placed 32 associates and 31 summer clerks through the program, Clinch says.

Clinch agrees with López that marketing is part of the equation when encouraging rural practice. "It's really hard to get people who have grown up in a big city to go to rural Nebraska,” he says. “What we tell them is the quality of life is very good. Housing is affordable. If you want to litigate, and you go to a big firm in Lincoln or Omaha, you might see the inside of a courtroom in two or three years.

“If you go out to Burwell [a small town and county seat], you'll probably be second chairing a trial the first couple of weeks you're in town."

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