How Legal Deserts Are Affecting Our Country and What to Do About It
The opportunity to get legal help is an imperative part of our justice system. It is something many of us may take for granted, especially if we live in big cities or other highly populated areas.
However, many in America don’t have access to lawyers simply due to where they live.
Legal deserts are geographical locations with very few to no lawyers at all. These are typically rural areas with small populations. Though the issue of legal deserts isn’t well known or talked about, they are something that needs to be addressed.
Today, we want to start the conversation on legal deserts, bring awareness to this issue, and explain what can be done about it.
An Overview of Legal Deserts
In 2020, the ABA came out with a study that presented statistics and trends about the makeup of attorneys. It included maps and charts that showed every US county and how many lawyers were in each county. This revealed there were many counties that lacked legal representation of any kind and sparked concern over the issue of legal deserts.
Legal deserts are typically in rural communities. However, as time has gone on, it has become clear that “rural” is a hard term to define. This makes this an especially complex issue. Each rural community looks different from another and has different needs.
Regardless, legal deserts are an issue nationwide.
Why Legal Deserts Are a Concern
Why are we so concerned about legal deserts? There are a variety of reasons why this is something that needs to be addressed and dealt with.
Research has shown that in situations where there’s a known lack of access to justice, those in positions of power use the lack of a rule of law to exploit vulnerable populations. In other words, a lack of access to justice can evolve into a greater lack of agency in one’s life. It can snowball and become a much greater handicap than the original unaddressed legal issues.
Other research shows the prevalence of poverty and civil problems in rural areas. People living in these areas have legal issues just like everyone else; they’re not immune to these problems. However, they are receiving significantly less help than other parts of the country. That’s why this issue is such a concern.
What’s Being Done
There are organizations helping with this problem right now. For one, the South Dakota Bar Association has helped create a project called Project Rural Practice. This is basically legal recruitment. It’s a program that gets attorneys to relocate and practice in rural areas of their states. It relies on contributions from the State Bar, the legislature, and local communities to provide five years of funding to each qualifying attorney who moves to an eligible rural area.
Similar programs have been started in other states as well. Many of them don’t provide the same monetary contributions but have organized things like bus tours. They take law students and recent law school graduates to rural areas to familiarize them with what it would be like to practice there.
Other programs have taken this even further than a bus ride. For example, The Legal Services Corporation has a program called Equal Justice Works. They support 40 dedicated law students who want to serve rural communities as part of their rural summer legal core. Student fellows spend eight to ten weeks at a funded civil aid organization in a rural community. There, they develop valuable skills and gain hands on experience.
Another great tool many states have used is limited scope representation. In a lot of rural communities, the residents don’t have the resources to engage the traditional hourly attorney. They assume that if they can’t hire the expensive hourly attorney, then they just don’t have an option.
However, a lot of times, that’s not necessarily true. If lawyers are able to take advantage of unbundled, limited scope services, they can then provide those services to clients who otherwise think they can’t afford legal services at all. If you want to learn more about how you can help with legal deserts, check out Episode 054: Legal Deserts.