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Rural Deserts

Why Regulatory Reform Is Desperately Needed in the U.S.

By Camille Stell

Regulatory reform is needed to make sure there is coverage for “legal deserts” where citizens have access to few or no law firms.

There are 1.3 million lawyers in the United States.

Nationwide, there are approximately four lawyers for every 1,000 residents, but the number doesn’t reflect the reality. Most lawyers work in urban areas, while many rural areas of the country have few or no lawyers.

Overall, 40% of all counties and county-equivalents in the U.S. have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents. Legal experts call these “legal deserts.”

What Do Legal Deserts Mean for Citizens Who Need Help?

A lawyer in rural North Carolina shared that his law firm was one of two in a 40-mile radius. He and his partner are in their mid-70s, as are the other lawyers in the county. His law firm has not received an unsolicited resume from a lawyer in more than 10 years. He serves on his judicial district committee to conduct lawyer fitness interviews and no one in their multi-county judicial district has taken the bar exam in the past three years.

Project Rural Practice

In 2012, South Dakota was one of the first states to tackle the problem of legal deserts. Project Rural Practice combines funding from the state, rural counties and local bars to support young lawyers in small towns and farm counties. The results are “legal oases,” said Patrick Goetzinger, former president of the South Dakota State Bar who helped create the program.

According to a “South Dakota Law Review” 2014 study, 20% of the country’s residents live in rural areas, but only 2% of attorneys practice in rural areas or small towns. Rural lawyers are typically older; a New York state survey of 900 rural lawyers found that 74% were 45 or older and more than 46% said they planned to retire within 10 years.

Regulatory Reform

The ABA’s Legal Innovation Regulatory Survey, originally published in 2019, provides an overview of the legal regulatory landscape related to legal innovation and access to justice.

To date, more than 14 states are studying regulatory reform issues or are engaged in regulatory reform. Increased pressure to study regulatory reform is rising due to access to justice concerns, increasing legal technology innovations, changes in the legal marketplace, as well as the pandemic and the havoc it has caused for citizens, the courts and lawyers.

According to the Clio Legal Trends Report and other surveys reporting on law, solo and small firm lawyers face a challenging environment:

  • The cost of traditional legal services is going up.
  • Access to legal services is going down.
  • The growth rate of law firms is flat.
  • Lawyers serving ordinary people are struggling to earn a living.

The primary mechanism for regulating the market is lawyer ethics, including:

  • Rule 5.4 (who can own and invest in law firms)
  • Rule 5.5 (who can do the work)
  • Rules 7.2 – 7.3 (constraint of marketing efforts)

Most experts do not expect to see an improvement in these legal deserts in the next decade.

Lauren Sudeall, a law professor at Georgia State University, while not optimistic about seeing improvements in these numbers, says, “But I hope that we can have a broader understanding of what access to justice means … Not just by looking at justice as sort of this binary do-you-have-a-lawyer-or-not question.”

Regulatory Reform Will Change Limited Access to Justice

“Nearly every state in the nation has large stretches of rural areas and counties with few lawyers in them — or no lawyers at all,” ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said. “In fact, rural residents are disproportionately poor, and many are forced to travel long distances to find lawyers to handle routine matters that affect their everyday lives, such as wills, divorces and minor criminal and civil cases.”

The Legal Services Corporation’s 2017 Justice Gap Report shows:

  • In 2016, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.
  • 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year, including problems with health care, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence.
  • In 2017, low-income Americans will approach LSC-funded legal aid organizations for support with an estimated 1.7 million problems. They will receive only limited or no legal help for more than half of these problems due to a lack of resources.

In the medical profession, one in 10 health care providers are doctors with a wide range of other medical providers who can aid the sick.

In the legal profession, nine in 10 legal providers are lawyers. Where are all the other resources our citizens need to deal with problems that affect their lives in no less devastating ways than sickness?

It’s time to consider other options through regulatory reform.

Here are some regulatory options states are considering or have in place:

  • Limited license/Paraprofessional models
  • Court navigators
  • UPL liberalization
  • Alternative business structure (ABS)
  • Regulatory sandboxes
  • Fee sharing with nonlawyers
  • Alternative admission to the bar
  • Nonlawyer ownership

What Can You Do About Regulatory Reform?

Proposals open for discussion include the creation of a regulatory sandbox (allowed in Utah), limited licensed paraprofessionals (Ontario has had a limited license program for more than 10 years, and Utah and Washington have added limited license programs in recent years), and the use of court navigators (allowed in Arizona and New York).

In addition, the Legal Services Organization recently launched a Rural Justice Task Force to study and recommend ways to enhance access to justice in rural communities. (The report is due in 2023.) The Rural Justice Collaborative — a project of the National Center for State Courts — recently launched an initiative to identify rural justice “innovation sites” that will serve as models for other communities. Over the next three years, the RJC will work with the sites to create educational materials that will be featured in an online resource center.

Lawyers have the opportunity to make a difference. Follow the work of the state bars and organizations that are implementing regulatory reform efforts and encourage your own state to explore the possibilities that exist to expand access to justice.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Camille Stell Camille Stell

Camille Stell is President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services and co-author of “Designing A Succession Plan for Your Law Practice: A Step-by-Step Guide for Preparing and Packaging Your Firm for Maximum Value.” Camille is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, a member of the inaugural Pro Bono Resource Center Advisory Board, and has been recognized by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly as a member of the inaugural class of “Leaders in the Law.” Follow her @camillestell.

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