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February 15, 2020

Legal deserts: How Texas, New York are tackling the problem

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and they’re not wrong. Among the 50 states, Texas is second in land area, second in population and third in the number of lawyers.

But it also has a Texas-sized problem with legal deserts – huge areas with few lawyers, so rural residents have to drive far to find attorneys to handle wills, divorces and criminal cases.

Nathan Hecht knows the problem firsthand. He’s chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and he laid out the problem – and some possible solutions – Feb. 14 at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Austin, during a panel discussion sponsored by the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

“We have 105,000 lawyers and we have 254 counties,” Hecht said. That’s about 400 lawyers per county. “As you’d probably guess, Houston and Dallas and San Antonio have a lot more than 400 lawyers. So that means there are a whole lot of counties in Texas… that are very far-flung, low-populated areas that don’t have very many lawyers.”

In fact, 67 Texas counties have five lawyers or fewer, including 17 counties with just one lawyer and six with no lawyers at all, according to a 2018 tally from the State Bar of Texas.

To help residents in those areas, Texas takes two approaches, Hecht said. One is to encourage lawyers in big cities to establish a presence in nearby areas where there are few lawyers – to go there once a week, or partner with other lawyers to open small storefront offices. “At least there is help that’s not as far away as 50 or 100 miles,” Hecht said.

The second approach uses technology. Every Texas court has electronic filing, Hecht said, and in some rural counties the state had to provide internet connections to make that happen. In some places, he added, there are “virtual legal clinics” in libraries, where residents can video conference with lawyers via proprietary software. Another provider, he said, provides family law help through computer terminals. Others provide live video chats.

Some legal providers, he said, set up iPads with dedicated programs that take users to a website with information on pertinent issues. These are often used in disaster situations, with iPads provided to first responders, who then pass them along to people in need.

“None of this, obviously, is ideal,” Hecht said, “but it is an effort to try to get legal counsel to people in areas where it’s just not otherwise available.”

New York State has a similar problem, said Henry “Hank” Greenberg, an Albany lawyer and president of the New York State Bar Association. Although New York has more lawyers than any state in the country, the vast majority are in and around New York City. In fact, only 8% of the state’s population is on 85% of its land – and that same area has just 3% of the state’s lawyers.

“Rural New York has been suffering a rapidly accelerating access-to-justice problem,” Greenberg said. “There are not nearly enough lawyers to address the needs of smaller communities… There is, simply put, a crisis in terms of getting older lawyers to stay in their jobs longer than they are,” while younger lawyers are avoiding rural areas.

For general practitioners who are in rural areas, Greenberg said, one problem is “the perplexity and specialization of the profession.” More than half of rural attorneys say they have declined cases because the subject matter is outside of their area of expertise, yet 40% also said they were unable to make referrals. “The upshot is the client, in many instances, is unrepresented,” Greenberg said.

To discuss solutions, the New York State Bar Association recently created a Task Force on Rural Justice, with 30 practitioners and judges focused on three areas: the impact of the lawyer shortage in rural areas, the challenges of delivering justice in rural areas and the unique practice needs of rural practitioners. The task force will recommend potential changes in law and public policy.

The panel was moderated by Sharon Stern Gerstman, a Buffalo lawyer and past president of the New York State Bar Association.