July 19, 2024


Built General Tough

Legal Deserts Threaten Justice In Rural America

Patricia Refo
Patricia Refo

Florida’s Glades County has a beautiful, historic courthouse that was built 92 years ago. It has a circuit judge, which it shares with nearby Hendry County, and a county judge. But it lacks one crucial element of a functional justice system. The county has no active lawyers among its 13,811 residents.

By population, it is the biggest county in the country without a practicing lawyer. But it is hardly alone.

Across the U.S., many small towns and rural counties have few lawyers or none at all. Nationwide, 54 counties have no lawyers, and an additional 182 counties have just one or two lawyers. In fact, nearly every state in the country has large swaths of these legal deserts.

Collectively, they threaten the very notion of justice for all.

Recently, the American Bar Association mapped and quantified legal deserts across the country. The newly released 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession counts and maps the number of lawyers in every county in the U.S., according to state licensing agencies in all 50 states. We believe it is the first such national accounting of where lawyers are plentiful and where they are scarce.[1]

The charts and maps tell a troubling story. For example, in California, Los Angeles County has 65,000 lawyers, San Francisco County has 20,000 and San Diego County has 19,000. No surprise there. Big cities attract lots of lawyers.

But look elsewhere in California. Modoc County, in the far north on the Oregon state line, has just nine lawyers for its 9,000 residents. And Imperial County, in the far south on the Arizona state line, has 164 lawyers. That may sound adequate, except Imperial County has 181,000 people. That’s less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents — one-fourth the national average. By comparison, San Francisco has 23 lawyers per 1,000 residents.

Visually, the maps tell the same story. In Arizona, you can see a big cluster of lawyers around Phoenix, where I live and work, and another cluster around Tucson. Elsewhere, the Arizona map is very empty. Greenlee County, on the New Mexico border, has just four lawyers for its 9,000 residents. In fact, Arizona has fewer lawyers per 1,000 residents than any other state.

The conclusion is inescapable: As an American, your access to justice can be determined, in part, by where you live. In urban America, there are plenty of lawyers to help. In many parts of rural America, you could be forced to travel a long way to find a lawyer to handle criminal or civil matters.

Why does that matter?

Studies show that individuals have better legal outcomes with a lawyer by their side.[2] Lack of representation can even have serious health consequences, at least in criminal cases. According to Lauren Sudeall, a law professor at Georgia State University, criminal defendants without lawyers are more likely to be detained pretrial, and many jails have high rates of COVID-19 infections.

In the short run, the problem probably will get worse. Rural lawyers tend to be older than urban lawyers, and therefore closer to retirement. In Maine, which is largely rural, nearly half of all lawyers are over age 55, according to a 2018 study published by the Harvard Law & Policy Review.[3] Nationwide, only one-third of all lawyers are over 55.

Another study, published by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, shows that rural lawyers in Arkansas are older than the state average and concludes: “Of course, older attorneys are typically closer to retirement, which means the attorney shortage will soon worsen unless younger attorneys are enticed to serve these areas.”[4]

In other words, many one-lawyer counties could soon become no-lawyer counties. Fortunately, some states are finding creative solutions.

South Dakota was one of the first states to create a program to entice young lawyers to small towns’ Main Streets. In 2005, South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson declared that several counties were not meeting the legal needs of their rural residents. The South Dakota state bar took up the challenge. In 2012, it got funding from the state, counties and local bars to bring young lawyers to rural counties.

The program, Project Rural Practice, is a national model. Today, it funds 32 positions for rural lawyers throughout South Dakota. The result is a series of legal oases throughout the state where previously there were none.

That’s one solution, but it is highly dependent on lawyers, judges, bars and counties finding the resolve — and the money — to make it happen.

Law schools are uniquely positioned to address the problem. Several have clinics that match students with small towns that desperately need legal help.

The University of Nebraska has a project called the Rural Law Opportunities Program. Qualifying rural high school students receive scholarships to attend one of three state universities for undergraduate studies, then attend Nebraska College of Law. After getting their law degree, they return to their rural communities to become small-town lawyers.

And make no mistake, the program is needed in Nebraska, where 11 of the state’s 93 counties have no lawyers, and an additional 11 counties have just one or two lawyers.

Another program, the Rural Summer Legal Corps — co-sponsored by Equal Justice Works and the Legal Services Corp. — supports 35 law students who spend eight to 10 weeks at civil legal aid organizations in rural areas across the country.

While all these programs help, they alone can’t vanquish legal deserts across the country.

Legal aid offices across the country, funded by the Legal Services Corp., play a crucial role, but even they cannot meet the need. As the legal aid funder noted in its 2017 Justice Gap report, three out of four rural households experience at least one civil legal problem per year, and the vast majority — 86% — get no help or inadequate help.

It will take creativity and greater efforts by all — state legislators, state and local bars, law schools, and rural counties — to successfully tackle this challenge. And tackle it we must. Justice demands it.

Patricia Lee Refo is president of the American Bar Association and a partner at Snell & Wilmer LLP.

“Perspectives” is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email [email protected].

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf.

[2] https://pepperdinelawreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Rachlinski%E2%80%93Final-v2-no-ICR.pdf.

[3] https://harvardlpr.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/20/2019/04/4.-Legal-Deserts.pdf.

[4] https://www.qgtlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Justice-in-the-Hinterlands-UALR-Law-Review-Summer-2015.pdf.