Initiatives Seek to Broaden Access to Legal Counsel for Rural Residents

To illustrate the dire need for more attorneys in rural America, a University of Arkansas Bowen School of Law professor tells the story of an older lawyer, well beyond typical retirement age, who wouldn’t leave his job in a one-lawyer town until a younger legal mind came to take his place. 

When a neophyte finally set up shop, the elder man packed up and headed into a much-earned respite. 

“Two or three months later, the gentleman passed away,” said Amy Pritchard, director of Bowen’s Rural Practice Incubator Project. “There are a lot of attorneys in the state wanting to retire but putting it off. We’re talking about people who are 70, 75.”

Left to right: PIA fellow Shannon Marlow Rogers, Jennifer Powell and PIA fellow Austin RogersLeft to right: PIA fellow Shannon Marlow Rogers, Jennifer Powell and PIA fellow Austin Rogers

Launched in September 2018, Pritchard’s Little Rock-based incubator of country lawyers is one among several efforts nationwide aiming to broaden access to legal counsel for rural dwellers who too often — and often to their detriment — are forced to forgo such expertise. Arkansas has a statewide average of 2.04 attorneys per 1,000 residents. But, in its 25 most rural counties, the ratio is .64 per 1,000. The recognition of similar gaps elsewhere in the United States is driving endeavors such as the 18-month-long incubator to provide everything from summertime fellowships for existing law students to financial and other supports for newly minted lawyers either establishing private, rural practices or signing on with government-funded Legal Aid offices far outside of big cities.

“It’s paramount that we fill in the resource gap for rural communities, so that everyone has access to justice, not just those near metropolitan areas,” said Aoife Delargy Lowe, director of law school engagement and advocacy at Equal Justice Works. 

From the 450 applicants to the Washington, D.C. organization’s 2020 round of Rural Summer Legal Corps fellowships, 35 law students will be selected. The applicants hail from 139 law schools in 42 states, according to Lowe. They work in legal areas including medical partnerships, tribal law, housing and so on.

Attorney Courtney Klus — a West Virginia University College of Law grad — immediately segued from her 2016 Equal Justice Works fellowship to a full-time job with Legal Aid of West Virginia. Her office is in Clarksburg, West Virginia, the seat of Harrison County and a city of roughly 16,000 residents, according to the latest available Census data.

“A huge portion of our state lives in poverty, often generational poverty. A big concern is, ‘What jobs are available?’ Barriers like that create a whole other set of problems,” Klus said. “We’re in the top couple of states in the nation with grandparents raising grandchildren, largely because of the opioid crisis. There is an aunt, an uncle, a great-uncle stepping in to keep children out of foster care and, in many situations, adopting them.”

Furonda BrasfieldFuronda Brasfield

Her fellowship had her serving the legal needs of those families. In her current post, funded by the federal Victims of Crime Act, she serves victims of domestic violence, “getting orders to protect people, their children, even their pets from an abuser. I do divorces, some custody cases, some housing issues.”

She revels in the work, Klus said. A number of her classmates also chose public interest law. 

“There’s a misconception that these kids want to monetize their degree and do the work they can get the most pay for,” says Jennifer Powell, a professor at Klus’ law school alma mater and director of its Center for Law and Public Service. “Many of them recognize that the need is so great, and that the rewards of this work are great. Though not everybody who has a summer fellowship goes on to do this work full time, we do hope it inspires them, after they go on to a firm, to do pro bono work for people they know are in need.”

For Furonda Brasfield, an attorney in the University of Arkansas Bowen Law School’s current, inaugural class of rural fellows, being in that incubator has been critical to building a law firm in eastern Arkansas, in the same Mississippi River Delta region where she was born and reared. During a tough-on-crime era, many from the largely impoverished area were handed extra-long prison sentences for convictions including those related to non-violent drug offenses. That left a lasting imprint.

“I feel incredibly good about providing legal services to people I know desperately need them, people who’ve lacked access to justice or gotten a different kind of justice than what they should have received,” Brasfield said.

Getting up and running

For setting up rural law practices, Bowen fellows get several thousand dollars to cover business expenses; help with marketing; free legal education courses through county and state bar associations; a digital case management system; and free access to the subscription-based Westlaw and LexisNexis online search engines which provide information on an array of legal matters. That’s important when, as is Brasfield, you’re a one-lawyer shop on the main drag of Stuttgart, Arkansas, a town of roughly 8,700, according to the most recent Census data, where rice and soybean farming are among the main industries.

“Yesterday, I started the morning off working a criminal case; my client took a plea. Then, I

The 2019 class of Public Interest Advocates fellows.The 2019 class of Public Interest Advocates fellows.

worked on trying to recover money for a worker’s comp client … and a child custody case,” Brasfield said in early February, as she sat in a conference room at Bowen.

“I’m right down from the courthouse, on the same street,” she added. “A lot of people might be on the way to court when they decide they need an attorney. These are not people who have called me in advance. I see a lot of family law, criminal cases, [wage] garnishments of somebody who started a roof and didn’t come back to finish the job. … Someone came in and asked about the two grandchildren she’s been caring for but has no legal right to make sure they get to see a doctor.”

A local judge recruited Brasfield to Stuttgart from her first job as the part-time, assistant city attorney for Pine Bluff, 36 miles to the south. “’Miss Brasfield, I’ve got an office for you in Stuttgart … You can have it for free until you can afford to pay rent.’”

Pritchard, the Bowen Law School professor, said those kinds of appeals are uttered more often than many in the legal field care to hear. “I get judges calling randomly, saying ‘Send me someone. It has to be someone who has drive’ … the Furondas of the world.”

Pritchard continued: “There’s an increased focus on access to justice globally, like using an app on your phone to download do-it-yourself legal documents, on things like Legal Zoom. But a lot of those solutions don’t work in rural communities that lack access to broadband, and where the culture heavily depends on face-to-face interactions.

“At the same time, you’ve seen this brain-drain, people with economic mobility moving to places with more economic opportunity. Those are some of the things we’re fighting against. That’s part of what this work is about.”

Lowe of Equal Justice Works said fueling a pipeline of country lawyers also means easing student loan debt that saddles so many new attorneys. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program helps achieve that. Under that program, she said, “a borrower’s student debt is forgiven after ten years of public service and 120 qualifying on-time monthly payments [on outstanding loans]. … It makes a long-term career in public service financially feasible and is an important recruitment and retention tool for lawyers who want to serve in rural communities.”

On May 13, This article was updated to correct and clarify the number of law students selected for Equal Justice Works’ Rural Summer Legal Corps fellowships. Diverse regrets the error.

This article originally appeared in the April 30, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.