Access to legal services has consistently been much lower in rural areas of the country, according to a 2020 report from the American Bar Association, with “40% of all counties and county-equivalents in the United States” having less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents.
Low income rural communities have been hit particularly hard.
According to the most recent Justice Gap Report from the Legal Services Corporation, the 8 million individuals living below 125% of the federal poverty line in rural areas are especially in need of access to legal services, with 77% of low income households having faced at least one civil legal problem in the last year.
This trend doesn’t have to continue, however.
New and established small, rural firms that embrace technology, build personal relationships with clients, and cultivate lawyers who are members of their communities are uniquely positioned to help increase access to legal services in regions where those services are desperately needed.
To maintain access to legal services in rural areas, the firms that remain must look to the future and form business strategies that benefit both firms and the communities they serve.
Leverage Tech to Boost Your Efficiency and Reach
Perhaps the most obvious challenge to lawyers working in rural communities is physical distance between courtrooms, individuals with legal needs, and attorneys themselves.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the legal system to rapidly adapt for remote lawyering, this barrier was weakened, according to Raymond Brescia, a professor at Albany Law School who has published on the intersection of technology and access to justice.
“[The pandemic] taught us it could be done and that it could provide a modicum of access to justice through technology that people were afraid to try before,” he says.
Appearing in court via video call allowed many attorneys, rural and urban alike, to appear in multiple jurisdictions without having to worry about hours of travel time, Brescia adds.
For small firms operating in rural communities, efficiency gained through tech allows attorneys at those firms to be more flexible in how they work, according to Brescia, which in turn increases their ability to give back to the community through pro bono or adjusted rate work.
He adds that leaning on technology as the primary driver for increasing access to legal services does come with some limitations and risks, some of which are tied to a deeper systemic issue of adequate access to the internet.
(Challenges regarding infrastructure, service availability, and high prices are common issues rural communities face when it comes to internet access, NPR reports.)
Other risks include cybersecurity issues and a potential lack of privacy for individuals who turn to public spaces like libraries for internet access, where they might not receive the same level of confidentiality they’d have in an attorney’s office.
Partner With a Bar Association or Nonprofit
For older attorneys currently operating a small firm in a rural community, connecting with the state bar association could provide opportunities to mentor young attorneys, according to Nicole Killoran, a professor at Vermont Law School whose work emphasizes rural access to justice and preparing up-and-coming attorneys for successful careers.
“There is a lot of interest in the graying bar to mentor the younger bar,” Killoran says, adding that these young mentees could even be positioned to take over an established practice when the previous owners retire.
She points to the Vermont Bar Association’s mentorship program and similar programs in other states as examples of how bar associations can facilitate connections between new and experienced lawyers.
Legal aid organizations like Equal Justice Works, which operates an annual program called the Rural Summer Legal Corps (RSLC), also work to create avenues for law students to begin building a career focused on underserved regions.
Many of the law students who participate in the RSLC go on to continue working in rural communities after graduation, according to Brooke Mecker, who has run the RSLC for the last five years.
Some of those students even return to the same firms that hosted their RSLC placements, she adds.
The good news, according to Mecker, is that there are plenty of law students who enter the industry with the intention of working with access to justice and in rural communities.
“I think that students who go to law school with a passion and dedication to serve others typically start early on in their career by looking for legal aid positions, looking for fellowships that focus on these issue areas,” Meckler says.
“Giving students paid experiences to work in legal aid and in public service really does encourage them to go on and continue that career after they leave law school.”
For small, rural firms, these annual cohorts of newly minted attorneys with eyes trained on public service could be prime targets for recruiting and mentorship.
If Not Service, Education
Another hindrance preventing low income individuals in particular from gaining access to legal services, regardless of their geographic setting, is a distrust in the legal system’s ability to work in their favor, according to the Legal Services Corporation.
For small law firms, educational activities that boost access to justice can easily be folded into current, popular marketing strategies like blogging and conducting webinars.
By educating their communities and positioning themselves as trustworthy, familiar community leaders, rural attorneys can increase individuals’ comfort with the legal system while advertising their own services for those who can pay.
While several of the programs Killoran is involved with do provide legal advice, she says basic legal education is also a huge part of the work she undertakes in relation to increasing rural access to legal services.
For example, programs like Vermont Law School’s Entrepreneurial Legal Laboratory can offer essential knowledge that allows business owners to protect their business and “be more responsible citizens” according to Killoran, who directs the program.
“Our goal for the program is basically to get a small business educated [so that] they understand more about the questions they’ll need to deal with and how to go into a relationship with an attorney,” she says.
Vermont Law School and the Vermont State Bar also collaborate on the VBA/VLS Solo Lawyer Incubator Project, which aims to encourage “new and new-to-Vermont lawyers” to launch their own small scale or solo practices by providing education and financial incentives.
“The conditions [for participating in the incubator] are specifically that they have to be willing to practice in a rural area or an area of need, whether it’s a geographical area or an area of law,” says Killoran, who serves as an advisor to the project.
Ethan Beberness is a Brooklyn-based writer covering legal tech, small law firms, and in-house counsel for Above the Law. His coverage of legal happenings and the legal services industry has appeared in Law360, Bushwick Daily, and elsewhere.