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Most legal professionals would agree that the profession is saturated. With so many lawyers out there, there is heavy competition for clients. But as I wrote about in “Representing Rural Clients from a Big-City Office,” this is not the case in rural America, where a lawyer shortage has considerable implications for access to justice.
There is opportunity in these rural areas, not just for reaching people in need but also for building your law practice. And with today’s technology options, you don’t need to set up shop in a small town to meet this opportunity. Online legal services companies are already using technology to provide legal consumers with virtual help, no matter where they happen to live. For example:
These may not have been created for rural residents specifically, but for people living in remote areas where lawyers are scarce, they can be quite valuable.
Lawyers hoping to represent rural clients don’t need to spend a lot of money creating their own tech tools, though. Using a simple service like Skype conferencing can offer huge returns. For more possibilities, check out “Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online” by Stephanie Kimbro. Just a few changes to your practice can make representing remote clients easier. (See “Must-Have Technology for Better Client Service.”)
But rural clients are not necessarily like urban ones, so tech solutions that work for the latter may not work for the former. For one, rural “culture” may make people more inclined to resolve their legal issues on their own rather than turning to the law, even if lawyers were available. Beyond this, rural dwellers have challenges that are specifically related to technology. If you want to deploy technology to provide legal services to rural clients, consider the following.
In rural U.S. areas, internet speeds are much slower: 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband, compared to only 4 percent of urban Americans. This inequality is stark enough to create a “digital divide” that has grabbed the FCC’s attention. This can make it difficult for rural populations to take full advantage of digital solutions to legal — and other — problems. Until broadband becomes more prevalent in rural communities, online services targeting rural areas should be user-friendly for internet speeds that aren’t … well, up to speed.
Rural Americans are less likely than city dwellers to own different devices. According to a Pew Research Center survey, fewer adults in rural than urban areas own smartphones or tablets. Fewer even own traditional computers. Moreover, rural adults are less likely to own multiple devices: Only 29 percent say they have a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and broadband, whereas 40 percent of urban adults say they have all four — a significant difference, statistically speaking. Owning multiple devices means potential clients have access to online legal services in a variety of different settings — at a desk, on a couch, in public or on the go. Fewer devices, however, means less potential for interacting with online legal tools.
It’s important to figure out how rural dwellers in your state perform tasks that people in cities perform heavily online, such as shopping and seeking “how-to” information. If they are complementing online use with phone calls to people they find in a phone book or reading materials (like pamphlets or directories) they might find at a local library or government building, then you can leverage this knowledge to reach them where they are.
Supplementing online services with offline ones is really just a stopgap. Ideally, to efficiently serve clients remotely, you need your clients to be online. And rural Americans are less likely to be online.
Encouraging rural adults to get online more can open them up to legal help that they’d otherwise not know about. One way to do this might be through offline marketing, especially the kind that conveys the value of online legal help. For example, print ads could offer an incentive — like a free consult — for those who contact you by filling out a form on your website. You may even find it valuable to conduct seminars in rural areas on topics such as how to get a divorce, write a will or incorporate a business, for example, and as part of these seminars instruct participants on how to efficiently navigate the web to get their legal answers.
Like all marketing, efforts like these require a firm understanding of your audience so you know how to most effectively communicate with them, so do some research first.
The opportunity for lawyers and legal services companies to help rural clients is huge. It’s worth the effort to overcome existing barriers and reach people who are too geographically remote to get the right legal help. Those who can do this well will contribute immensely to solving our country’s access to justice problem. They can also build their law practices by reaching clients who have previously been out of reach.
Law doesn’t have to be strictly local anymore. Given that so many rural areas lack local help, it arguably shouldn’t be. And thanks to tech tools, and the right strategy, it doesn’t have to be.
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