“Too many lawyers” may ring true in the private sector, where plummeting hiring rates have left a high percentage of law grads without work. Big cities are full of JDs mired in student loan debt and unable to secure work in legal practice—which is frustratingly paradoxical, considering the high need for legal services in low income urban communities. Similarly, reports the ABA Journal, rural areas across the U.S. (many of them poor) lack access to legal services at a disproportionate rate. For example: Of the 159 counties in Georgia, six of them have no lawyers, and 40 of them have 10 or fewer lawyers. Twelve of Nebraska’s 93 counties have no lawyers. And while only two percent of small law practices in the U.S. are in rural areas, 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in those areas.
The ABA and state bar associations across the U.S. are tackling this issue through a variety of initiatives, providing new attorneys with incentives and resources to start practices in rural communities. South Dakota, for example, will pay you $12,000 per year for five years if you hang a shingle in one of the state’s many rural areas, according to the ABA Journal:
Modeled on similar programs for medical professionals, South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Program promises young attorneys $12,000 a year for five years if they move to a qualifying county of 10,000 or fewer people. The payments are designed to cover 90 percent of the cost of attending the University of South Dakota's School of Law. Before June 30, 2017, the state aims to recruit 16 participating attorneys.
North Dakota, which has seen its own population explode due to the oil boom of the last several years, is likewise facing an attorney shortage. Law offices there are oversubscribed. The state’s bar association has started a clerkship recruiting program, matching law students with state judges in rural communities.
The ABA launched the Legal Access Job Corps to address this disparity head-on. The Corps has funded projects in states such as Vermont, Nebraska and Arkansas aimed at increasing access to legal services in rural areas. Among state bar associations that have started their own matchmaking and incubator projects are Nebraska, Maine, and Iowa. Plans are underway for similar programs in New York, Georgia and Montana.
So next time you are dreaming of leaving the big, dirty city for greener pastures, consider the opportunities that may await in the countryside. And if you do decide to take that route, there is even a comprehensive guide, Becoming a Rural Lawyer, to help you along the way.
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