Addressing the Access to Justice Crisis in Rural America

Vol. 40 No. 3


Robin Runge is an associate professor lecturer at The George Washington University Law School, where she has taught public interest lawyering since 2004, and a member of the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.

W e have an access to justice crisis in rural America. A disproportionate percentage of people living in poverty live in rural communities in the United States. At the same time, there are very few attorneys providing legal services in rural communities, and their numbers are dwindling. In fact, in many rural counties in the United States, there are no practicing attorneys, and in some rural states, residents must travel hundreds of miles to the nearest legal services office or private firm attorney. Similarly, public defenders are scarce in rural America, often traveling circuits, similar to ways in which judges travel circuits and sit in courthouses just one day a week in certain communities.

Recently, the Nebraska State Bar Association reported that 12 rural counties in the state have no lawyers, leading individuals who need a lawyer to have to travel up to 200 miles to find one, assuming they could afford the travel costs and the costs of hiring an attorney. Rebecca Larson, Wanted: Rural Lawyers, Need a Job? Many Rural Communities Are Desperate for Lawyers, 23 Nat’l Jurist 12 (Jan. 2014), available at

In 2013, South Dakota had 1,905 active, resident attorneys and an estimated population of 844,877. See Legal Profession Statistics: National Lawyer Population by State 2003–2013, Am. Bar Ass’n (2013),; State and County QuickFacts: South Dakota, U.S. Census Bureau, (last visited Apr. 18, 2014). As of 2011, 65 percent of South Dakota’s attorneys were located in four cities: Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, and Pierre. Marcus Traxler, South Dakota Looks to Pioneer Rural Lawyer Program, Rapid City J. (July 8, 2013), The State Bar of South Dakota has stated that six counties have no attorneys and 19 have only three each. See Am. Bar Ass’n, supra; State and County QuickFacts: North Dakota, U.S. Census Bureau, (last updated Mar. 27, 2014). As of 2013, North Dakota had 1,560 active, resident attorneys and an estimated population of 723,393. Legal Profession Statistics, Am. Bar Ass’n,; State and County QuickFacts: North Dakota, supra. There is an average of only 1.3 lawyers for 1,000 people in rural areas of North Dakota. Anna Burleson, Attorneys Are Scarce in Rural North Dakota While Business Keeps Growing, Prairie Bus. (Mar. 24, 2014), Of the 357 towns in North Dakota, only 85 have an attorney, according to the North Dakota Supreme Court. Id.

In addition, a high percentage of the few attorneys practicing law in rural America are aging out of the practice of law without plans or prospects for carrying on their practices. The average age of attorneys has increased in the last five years to 49 years old nationwide. Legal Profession Statistics, supra. In Iowa, more than 100 small-town attorneys are nearing retirement and have not identified successors. Larson, supra, at 12. In South Dakota and North Dakota, small communities with one or two attorneys face a crisis when the attorneys retire. Kristi Earon, Rural Areas Struggle with Lack of Lawyers, MPRnews (Dec. 12, 2011), In Minnesota in 2010, it was predicted that a high percentage of attorneys would retire from the practice of law in rural areas in the next 10 years. Eric Cooperstein, Go Rural, Young Lawyer!, Lawyerist (June 27, 2014),

The lack of access to information and enforcement of legal rights in rural communities has significant repercussions, including possibly violating state and federal law. It means people with disabilities go without access to public benefits or employment. Without adequate access to legal assistance, individuals living in rural areas face risk of eviction (see Marilyn Hotch, Beth Gallie & Michael W. Mullane, Rural Access—An Innovative Program in Western Maine, 9 Me. B. J. 186, 187 (1994) (describing how a project designed to address a gap in legal services in Maine provided emergency legal services to a woman living in a rural area without access to transportation that helped her avoid eviction from her home and how 33 percent of cases handled were housing, mostly eviction related)) and victims of domestic violence are at greater risk of serious injury (see Lisa Pruitt, Place Matters: Domestic Violence and Rural Difference, 23 Wis. J. L. Gender & Soc’y 347 (2008) (describing how victims of domestic violence in rural areas are at a higher risk of severe physical injuries and that courts may be less accessible and are less aware of the rights of victims of domestic violence)).

Research has indicated that in situations where there is a known lack of access to justice, those in positions of power use the lack of a rule of law to exploit vulnerable populations. See, e.g., Blaine Bookey, Enforcing the Right to Be Free from Sexual Violence and the Role of Lawyers in Post-Earthquake Haiti, 14 CUNY L. Rev. 255, 257 (2011) (describing how the absence of the rule of law and dependence resulting from economic dislocation increased the risk of rape).

The lack of attorneys living and practicing in rural communities is an acute access to justice issue because it means low-income individuals in those communities are more likely not to have access to their most basic needs. Rural America is disproportionately poor. In 2012, 46.5 million people in the United States lived in poverty, defined as a family of four with an income of $23,850 or less. See Carmen DeNavas-Walt et al., U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, at 13 (2013), available at This represents 15 percent of the total population. Id. The rate of poverty in rural communities is 17.7 percent, in contrast to 14.5 percent in urban areas. Id. at 16. Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States, 85 percent of them are rural. See Trip Gabriel, 50 Years into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back, N.Y. Times (Apr. 20, 2014),

In states like New Mexico and North Dakota, rural poverty intersects with race, reflected in even higher poverty rates in counties where Native Americans make up much of the population. See Debra Lyn Bassett, Distancing Rural Poverty, 13 Geo. J. on Poverty L. & Pol’y 3, 11 (2006) (more than one out of every four rural African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are living in poverty). A lack of legal resources more negatively impacts individuals living in poverty in rural communities because they do not have the resources to travel to larger communities and pay private attorneys employed by large law firms.

Although each state has a nonprofit legal assistance organization that receives federal finding to provide free legal services to the poor, their offices and attorneys are primarily based in the urban communities in the states and they have seen consistent, drastic cuts in funding over the past 20 years. (For example, Legal Services of North Dakota is the Legal Services Corporation–funded legal assistance organization in North Dakota. It employs a total of eight attorneys for the entire state with offices in Bismarck, the second-largest community in the state; Fargo, the largest city in the state; and Minot, one of the other largest cities in the state. They also have staff in offices in Belcourt and New Town. LSND Staff Directory, Legal Servs. of N. Dak. (2009),

In addition to access to civil attorneys, the lack of public defenders in rural areas of the United States has a drastic impact on basic constitutional rights. In these rural states, the nearest public defender or prosecutor may be hundreds of miles away. This leads to possible violations of the U.S. Constitution when individuals charged with a crime are not represented or are represented by attorneys who are unfamiliar with criminal law or judges are forced to delay proceedings for many weeks until a public defender is available. Gideon v. Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) (holding that the Constitution requires states to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants charged with serious offenses who cannot afford lawyers themselves).

State bar associations, states, and law schools are attempting to address this crisis. First, law schools located in rural states are increasingly providing opportunities for law students to experience and learn firsthand about the benefits of practicing in a rural community. Similar to any other career choice a law student makes, without direct exposure to the practice of law in a rural community, it is hard for a student to make an informed decision about whether that experience is best for him or her. Other so-called alternative career paths, such as public interest law, have similarly benefited from law-school-sponsored opportunities to work in the field that have led to an increased commitment by law students to pursuing such a career. (For example, The George Washington University Law School and Georgetown Law Center both have invested significant resources in providing information, training, and educational opportunities for their students in public interest law. See, e.g., Public Interest and Pro Bono Overview, Geo. Wash. Univ., (last visited May 14, 2014); Office of Public Interest and Community Service, Geo. Law, (last visited May 14, 2014).)

Second, states and law schools are beginning to provide financial support to students who commit to practicing law in a rural community in an effort to address the costs of setting up a practice and any educational debt that may prevent a recent law school graduate from considering a rural practice. Again, efforts to increase participation in public interest careers provide a good example of how such incentives can be successful. Starting in the 1990s, law schools began developing loan forgiveness programs for recent graduates who chose to accept positions in public interest law. See Phillip G. Schrag & Charles W. Pruett, Coordinating Loan Repayment Assistance Programs with New Federal Legislation, 60 J. Legal Educ. 563, 587 (2011).

Today, the majority of law schools have some form of loan forgiveness program for public interest alumni. Although these programs vary, they generally agree to pay for the graduate’s law student loans for a specified period of time as long as the student remains employed in public interest law with a net income under a specific amount. Id. In addition, Congress recently passed legislation that provides loan forgiveness to law students to remain employed in the public interest law field for a minimum of 10 years. Id. at 595.

These programs have been credited with enabling more lawyers to pursue public interest law careers. Applying this experience to efforts to increase recent graduates’ practice of law in rural areas, law schools could provide grants to a small number of students who choose to enroll in the law school with the specific stated goal of practicing in a rural community that can go toward paying for a portion of their tuition, offering summer grants for students who choose to work as an apprentice for an attorney in a rural community, and providing a loan forgiveness program for students who choose to practice law in a rural community upon graduation (with another possibility being to utilize the existing public interest loan forgiveness programs to include rural practice in the definition of public interest law).

Another option would be for state Access to Justice commissions to link up with state bar associations and law schools to promote funding opportunities for rural practitioners to ensure access to justice in rural communities. See Cal. Comm’n on Access to Justice, Action Plan for Justice: A Report of the California Commission on Access to Justice 56–57 (Apr. 2007), available at; Cal. Comm’n on Access to Justice, Improving Civil Justice in Rural California: A Report of the California Commission on Access to Justice (Sept. 2010), available at

Third, law schools can and should provide essential learning opportunities designed specifically for law students and lawyers to successfully undertake a career practicing law in a rural community. Courses that incorporate the skills of opening and running a small legal business, entrepreneurial skills including outreach and marketing, and how to run a general practice are all important to equip law students with the necessary skills and experience. In addition, provision of clinical legal education and externships for course credit can provide students with invaluable experience practicing law under the supervision of a faculty member or practicing attorney in the community. Moreover, upon graduation ongoing, accessible, low-cost research assistance, continuing legal education, and networking opportunities including a mentorship program can provide new attorneys practicing in rural communities with a web of resources and support. Law schools in rural states that are interested in having their graduates stay and practice in those states should consider integrating these structures.