By Jessica Almeida, LISP-SIS
What is a Legal Desert?
During the AALL conference, the Government Law Libraries Special Interest Section sponsored a session titled, “Legal Deserts in America – What is Meaningful Access to Justice for All?”. The panel, moderated by LISP-SIS member Miriam Childs (Director of the Law Library of Louisiana), discussed the immense shortage of lawyers in rural areas and programs that are working towards bringing legal assistance to these areas.
Why are there shortages?
Lawyers are not spread evenly throughout the 50 states. Even in states with high numbers of attorneys, there are counties with no lawyers or legal assistance. Panelist Lisa Pruitt (Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law) explained the findings from the 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession, which shows large areas within several states with little to no legal representation. Most lawyers are where the people are, concentrated in cities or largely populated areas. The shortages found in these rural areas are due to a number of factors. Newer lawyers are concerned about the financial aspects of being a rural lawyer and wonder how they will pay off law school debt. Young lawyers worry about malpractice and the lack of mentors in rural areas. They also sometimes have social and personal concerns, including meeting people their own age and having access to good schools and healthcare.
What are the consequences of shortages?
Ms. Pruitt explained the consequences of legal deserts, including individuals who spend more time in jail if there is no legal assistance nearby. This leads to higher court costs for taxpayers as court appointed lawyers need to travel to see their clients. For civil issues, having no local legal representation means large percentages (approximately 86%) of people who receive no legal help.
What are the responses to the shortages?
A number of states have programs to decrease the legal shortages in rural areas. Ms. Pruitt spoke about legal incubators, succession planning programs, and partnerships to bring urban resources to rural areas. She also discussed how legal educators can encourage students to consider becoming rural lawyers. Panelist Suzanne Starr (Director of Policy & Legal Services, South Dakota Rural Recruitment Program) gave a brief overview of the program created by the South Dakota Supreme Court and State Bar in 2013. The South Dakota Rural Recruitment Program works to pair new lawyers with small counties in South Dakota. The lawyers receive a stipend to defray the cost of student loans while working on legal matters for the county and providing legal services to the townspeople as part of their private practice. Attorneys must invest five years in the program, before they can decide to stay or move on. The hope is that most attorneys will become integrated in the community and decide to stay. Ms. Starr reports that the program has been successful, doubling the number of attorneys since the program’s inception. She also talked a bit about the challenges, including finding housing for new attorneys in the area and the difficulties of recruitment during COVID.
What can law libraries do to help?
At the end of the program, Ms. Childs spoke about the efforts her library makes to aid in rural areas. In Louisiana, there are no public law libraries, so many public libraries need to provide legal reference assistance. In response, the Louisiana State Bar Association, the Louisiana Library Association, and the Law Library of Louisiana created the Legal Education Assistance Program (LEAP). The program provides training to public librarians on the Unauthorized Practice of Law and reference interview techniques while also providing access to legal resources through library guides. The partnership also hosts a Lawyers in the Library program, where attorneys provide consultations or workshops on specific legal issues.
To learn more about the session or to view the program, visit the virtual conference website.
About the author: Jessica Almeida is a Public Services Librarian at the University of Massachusetts School of Law. She is also vice chair of LISP-SIS and co-editor of the LISP/SR Blog.