Addressing the Legal Desert Problem

legal desert problem

You may have heard of food deserts, but have you heard of legal deserts? With a food desert, there is a lack of affordable food, especially fresh food, within a reasonable distance. The challenge for legal deserts is similar: there is a shortage of lawyers to serve the legal needs of rural communities. And just like food deserts, that lack can impact people’s health. 

A legal desert is defined as a county with one or fewer attorneys per 1,000 inhabitants. Forty percent of counties in the United States are legal deserts. Most of these are rural counties. There simply aren’t enough lawyers to meet the needs of the rural population. 

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Just to have a minimally functioning criminal justice system in a county, there must be a prosecutor, a public defense lawyer, and a judge. Often, those serving the role of public defenders are private attorneys who work on contracts to provide public defense to indigent defendants. Conflicts of interest can happen quickly in rural areas, due to the interconnectedness of the communities. A case with multiple defendants can result in the need for multiple lawyers due to the conflicting interests of the defendants. This puts pressure on the small number of lawyers available to serve these communities. 

An additional challenge is the specializations–or lack thereof–of the lawyers practicing in rural areas. While rural attorneys tend to be somewhat general in their practice, it’s not realistic anymore to take on any case or matter and expect to be able to handle it competently. If a client has a matter involving a highly specialized area of law, there may be only one attorney in the area who handles such matters. Again, conflicts of interest can become a problem if that specialist has worked for the opposing party, which is more likely to occur in a smaller, tight-knit community. Together, these factors can limit a client’s access to competent representation. 

Lawyers also tend to be concentrated in county seats and other larger communities within a county, so a rural client may have to travel some distance to meet with their lawyer. If the client has trouble obtaining transportation or time off work, this can be a serious impediment to obtaining legal services. Technology, such as video conferencing and remote online notarization, can certainly help, but many clients prefer to be in person, and some may not have access to reliable high speed internet. 

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The rural bar is also “graying.” A number of attorneys in rural areas are aging toward retirement, and many do not have a younger attorney ready to take over their practice or one who is willing to move to a rural area to fill the void. Attorneys will sometimes hang on to their practices longer than they intended out of loyalty to their clients, simply because they haven’t found anyone to take their place. 

Because poverty is more common in rural areas, the strain on attorneys doing public defense and civil legal aid is greater. Unresolved legal issues can lead to the loss of the essentials of life such as support for children, housing, and employment. In fact, unresolved legal issues can lead to health problems due to stress or the loss of health insurance or housing. While we normally think of access to justice issues in the context of crisis and litigation, many legal problems can be headed off with access to legal advice in advance. This makes it all the more important to address legal deserts. 

What are some of the ways we can address legal deserts?

We can ensure sufficient funding to pay public defenders or contractors doing public defense so they can have a reasonable workload and meet the needs of indigent clients. Having reasonable workloads and pay can also help attract more lawyers to rural areas. 

Moving to a rural area is a big change for a lawyer who is accustomed to living in more populated areas. Law schools can do their part by encouraging students to extern in rural areas to acclimate prior to moving for a full-time job. 

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Law schools can encourage students to serve rural communities by offering courses relevant to rural areas. Concord Law School at Purdue Global is offering a course in Rural Law Practice that can be taken from anywhere via the internet. Attending law school online can help prospective lawyers who already reside in rural areas stay in their communities.

Technology can be used to extend the reach of lawyers in larger communities to rural areas. This is especially helpful for legal aid clients. I volunteer answering legal questions online for clients all over my home state of Minnesota. Legal kiosks can help people who don’t have access to the internet or technology to access legal aid, and in some cases, be able to attend legal meetings online. They can be placed in community centers and local nonprofits, which rural clients will be more likely to be able to access. 

Other strategies don’t necessarily rely on technology. Licensing requirements for attorneys can be modified to allow for more flexibility to move between states to address rural legal needs. State bars can help by paying stipends to lawyers to encourage attorneys to move to rural areas. Legal incubators can be started by bar associations and law schools to help attorneys launch rural law practices. There are even justice buses–“bookmobiles” of law that bring legal aid to rural areas. 

Medical-legal partnerships can be used to promote access to the justice system. Having an embedded legal aid attorney working with medical professionals greatly increases the chance that a client will seek and get legal help. This helps prevent the health risk that unaddressed legal issues present. 

Legal deserts may not be apparent to most city dwellers, but in the aggregate, they present a major challenge for the nation’s health, economy, and social fabric. They must be addressed not only to assure justice for our rural areas but to strengthen the country as a whole.

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