In previous posts, I wrote about the intensive access to justice efforts at the University of Cincinnati School of Law and Roger Williams School of Law and Georgia State University’s Center for Access to Justice.  This week’s posts also addresses access to justice initiatives, but this time framed by a law review article that describes an effort that is distinctive in five meaningful ways.

First, the article was co-authored by five law professors (in the order they are listed on SSRN), Professor Lisa Pruitt of UC Davis School of Law, Professor Amanda Kool of Harvard Law School, Professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas, who directs the Georgia State Access to Justice Center, Dean Danielle Conway of the University of Maine School of Law, and Professor Hannah Haksgaard of the University of South Dakota School of Law, and a Medical School Professor, Michele Statz of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, School of Medicine.

Second, the article describes law school-based rural access to justice initiatives in three states, California, Maine, and South Dakota. In California, the One Justice’s Justice Bus takes students, as well as attorneys, into rural communities to provide one-time legal services. In Georgia, Georgia State’s Alternative Spring Break Pro Bono Initiative is planning a 2019 rural-focused access to justice clinic.  In Maine, the University of Maine School of Law (Maine Law) partnered with the Maine State Bar Association, the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, and the Maine Justice Foundation to plan and launch the Maine Law Rural Lawyer Project. With seed funding from the Maine Justice Foundation and in-kind contributions from the remaining three partners, Maine Law launched The Rural Lawyer Project, which places law students with practitioners in communities that would otherwise have limited access to legal services. Maine Law students work in the summers under the guidance of practitioners and are exposed to all facets of rural practice, including, but not limited to, legal research and drafting, dispute resolution, general practice case management, real estate transactions, trial practice, and ethics.  In South Dakota, the Project Rural Practice launched a program in the summer of 2017 to place first- and second-year law students in summer jobs at rural law firms. Using a $25,000 grant to partially fund summer internships in rural counties, the career office at USD Law works to connect law students and small-town practitioners with the goal of exposing students to rural practice and connecting them with the rural legal community.

These initiatives are similar to two projects at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law.  The first, which the law school calls its Delta Clinic, is a more or less traditional legal clinic in every way except its location—in the area of Arkansas, the Delta, with the most severe access to justice deficit in the state (given the area’s 4,000:1 population to lawyer ratio). The Delta Clinic students prepare divorce complaints and motions for fee waivers for low-income client, obtain service on defendants, represent the clients in divorce hearings, and write final divorce decrees. The second, the law school’s new Rural Practice Incubator, is designed to support Bowen alumni in launching viable small or solo practices in rural, under served Arkansas communities. The 18-month program supports incubator attorneys with training, resources, mentoring, and guidance to assist them in building their professional careers as rural attorneys. Incubator attorneys are encouraged to implement innovative legal service delivery models to increase access to justice for low- and moderate-income rural Arkansans. Each participant will provide a minimum of 100 hours of pro bono or low bono legal services during the program.

Third, the article provides hard data on the severe access to justice issues faced by American rural communities. The article points out that rural communities feel budget cuts to legal aid much more severely than their urban peers, that racial and ethnic minorities are over-represented among those in rural communities who lack meaningful access to justice, and that the access to justice problem is much more than a deficiency in legal aid lawyers given the severe shortage of rural lawyers of any stripe, and that the rural lawyer population is shrinking.

Finally, the authors suggest four new approaches to rural access to justice: (1) continuing to gather and analyze data regarding the rural lawyer shortage and efforts to address the shortage; (2) continuing to develop local, patchwork solutions that include but are not limited to technological solutions; (3) establishing state and federal financial incentives to encourage law school graduates to enter rural practice and developing collaborations with retiring rural practitioners; and (4) continuing and expanding law school efforts to recruit, train, place, and support law school graduates interested in rural practice.

Given the rural lawyer shortages about which the authors write, such efforts seem necessary if we are ever to realize meaningful access to justice.