The COVID-19 pandemic disruption was not lost on the legal profession. Law firms responded to the uncertainty almost instantaneously to keep communications channel open to serving clients. Court operations likewise faced the unprecedented task of delivering justice while preserving public health. The legal and judicial systems encountered expedited growing pains while their members coped with physical and mental impacts at home.
Meanwhile, technology rightfully took a giant step forward in the notoriously slow-to-adapt legal industry. Necessity drove organizations to quickly add more computers, cameras, monitors, lighting, and videoconferencing technology to meet the demands of the virtual office.
As new tools and processes were added to the way we work, many attitudes shifted in how an efficient and effective workplace might be structured. What novel lessons from the pandemic might we apply to addressing the continued disappearing rural lawyer problem and delivering legal services to rural America as these conditions continue to evolve?
Legal Deserts Continue in Illinois
In the previous parts to this series (Part I and Part II), I examined the geographic makeup of resident Illinois lawyers. In 2019, those data showed roughly 7,000 lawyers across 95 counties outside of Chicagoland serving a population of approximately 4.5 million people. At that time, newly admitted attorneys were remaining in urban areas as well: 76 Illinois counties had five or fewer new attorneys (or those who were admitted in the last four years) and one-third of Illinois counties (39) didn’t have any new attorneys.
With the admission of the November 2021 class of Illinois lawyers, I took another look at the practice locations by county for those admitted in the last four years. Today, 72 Illinois counties have five or fewer new attorneys while 33 counties continue to have none. While this shift is slight, this could signal the beginning of improvement.
On the other hand, should we focus on how or if rural populations are getting their legal needs met, rather than on location? I say, yes and no.
Stopgap Solutions to a Lack of Rural Lawyers
We’ve made great strides in access to legal information for the public in Illinois, such as the easy navigation of common legal questions found at Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO). Qualifying users can even seek virtual legal advice to their civil legal questions at Illinois Free Legal Answers. Licensed pro bono attorneys utilize asynchronous engagement to privately address their legal needs.
Also, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice continues to approve dozens of court forms in multiple languages for use in its trial, appellate, and supreme courts. These ADA accessible forms include simple language instructions to guide the self-represented litigant through drafting and using them without the assistance of counsel. In combination with e-filing in all parts of Illinois, a self-represented litigant can research, draft, and file pleadings in court. It may not be a solution to accessibility, but it’s a step to reducing geographical barriers.
As for access to the courts, remote technology has been a vital tool to bring litigants into the hearings in the midst of a public health crisis. However, even the journey to the virtual courtroom can be a difficult one, both in internet accessibility and in navigation without a lawyer.
While access to digital technology for rural Americans has increased in recent years, they remain less likely to have home broadband and less likely to own a smartphone, tablet computer or traditional computer than those in urban areas. Nationwide, 72% have home broadband internet access in 2021, up from 63% five years prior, according to Pew Research.
Even when we have quality resources in place to better help court users understand their rights, assuming they have the connectivity to reach those resources, their own enforcement of those rights remains a challenge.
Traditionally, that challenge is addressed by lawyers. The Illinois State Bar Association’s (ISBA) Rural Practice Fellowship Program, for example, attempts to make more lawyers available to meet this need. Created in 2020, and expanded thereafter, the program offers two fellowship programs.
The Rural Practice Summer Clerk Fellows Program connects law students with rural practitioners to give them experience and mentorship while working in rural communities before they leave law school and includes a $5,000 fellowship stipend. Whereas in the Rural Practice Associate Fellows Program, newer lawyers are placed as associate with rural practitioners. The program includes a $5,000 stipend at the beginning of employment, and an additional $5,000 stipend if the associate is still working for the same firm after one year. Both programs encourage the participants to increase access to justice through the provision of pro bono services.
Since their launch, the programs have drawn great interest from law students, new lawyers, and law firms hoping to take on a summer clerk or new associate. The program initially received 106 fellow applications (30 seeking an associate placement; 76 seeking a clerkship) and 56 law firm applications (40 seeking an associate; 16 seeking a clerk), exceeding its expectations. Additional support and funding were approved by the ISBA to expand the associate attorney placements from four to 10, and the summer clerk placements from two to four, all with a wide geographical representation across rural Illinois.
Holistic Approaches to Rural Lawyering
While recruitment of rural lawyers proceeds in Illinois and many other states, other programming can serve the demands for access to justice. Whether court sponsored or privately managed, innovations around online dispute resolution, mediation services, and even substance abuse treatment and domestic abuse support can play a role in serving rural justice.
Two groups convened in 2021 to further examine and improve these efforts. They are the Rural Justice Collaborative (RJC), a project of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), and the Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) Rural Justice Task Force.
Rural Justice Collaborative
A cross-sector advisory council composed of rural judges along with additional stakeholders in the justice, child welfare, and behavioral health systems are guiding the RJC on a multi-year initiative to identify innovative programs and practices, build a national clearinghouse of such resources, and facilitate learning opportunities and collaboration to better meet the needs and gaps in rural justice systems.
Among other things, RJC awarded funding to nine innovation sites across rural America to help implement solutions in rural deserts. They advocate a holistic approach to serving the needs of rural communities ranging from providing substance use and mental health treatment to efforts that reduce the number of children in foster care.
The RJC provides a unique opportunity to establish national collaboration among access to justice leaders and local stakeholders to share ideas, resources, and tools to create a framework not seen before. Solutions impacting rural audiences may not function the same as their urban-modeled counterparts, further adding to the necessity for partnership across states.
Rural Justice Task Force
In December 2021, LSC launched its Rural Justice Task Force to identify and help address various legal service delivery problems faced by many low-income rural Americans. Similar to the RJC, the Rural Justice Taskforce has convened a multi-disciplinary committee from across the nation to embark on its mission “to enhance access to justice in rural communities by:
- Raising awareness about the rural justice gap;
- Profiling model legal service and related programs;
- Identifying best practices for supporting rural attorneys and serving rural clients; and
- Encouraging the exchange ideas and conceptualize improvements on topics such as how to recruit and retain attorneys in rural areas, reach people with limited or no Internet or cell phone service, use videoconferencing and other technology to provide services, cultivate effective community partnerships and pro bono initiatives, and build trust with people who live in rural communities.”
The final report of findings and recommendations from the Rural Justice Task Force is slated to be published in the spring of 2023.
The Takeaways for the State of Rural Lawyers
Technology has helped courts remain operational and lawyers serve their clients during a global public health emergency. Some innovations are poised to become permanent fixtures of the legal system while other components will return to the way things were. Nevertheless, the lessons we’ve gained appear to have unharnessed a collective effort to better understand the legal needs of rural America and how to meet them.
I remain hopeful and optimistic that what may remain in distance from legal resources will not equate to accessibility to those resources.
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