Justice in the Hinterlands: Arkansas as a Case Study of the Rural Lawyer Shortage and Evidence-Based Solutions to Alleviate It
148 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2016 Last revised: 11 Mar 2016
Date Written: February 17, 2016
In recent years, state high courts, legislatures, bar associations, and other justice system stakeholders have become aware that a shortage of lawyers afflicts many rural communities across the nation and that this dearth of lawyers has implications for access to justice. A lack of systematically collected data about precisely where lawyers are — and are not — in any given state is an obstacle to solving the problem. Another impediment is a lack of information about why lawyers are choosing not to practice in rural locales and about the sorts of incentives that might entice them to do so.
A principal aim of this article and the empirical work that informs it is to begin to develop evidence that will inform solutions to the rural lawyer shortage. In that regard, the article, written for the UALR Bowen “Access to Justice” symposium, makes two significant contributions. The first is to literally map where Arkansas lawyers are and then to look for trends and patterns regarding the least-served communities. The second is to survey law students and attorneys to determine their attitudes toward rural practice and rural living more generally, while also assessing openness to specific opportunities and incentives aimed at attracting lawyers to underserved communities.
We focused our analysis on Arkansas’s 25 least populous counties, which we refer to as the “Rural Counties.” All except one of these counties has a population of less than 15,000. Collectively, the Rural Counties are home to some 255,000 residents but fewer than 200 total lawyers, less than half of whom accept clients for representation, as signified by having an IOLTA Account. Representing a third of the state’s 75 counties, the Rural Counties lie in clusters in each of the state’s four quadrants, and most are relatively distant from state and regional population centers. Among these counties, we found no clear correlation between high poverty and low ratios of attorneys to population. As a general rule, the Rural Counties that are farthest from a metropolitan area have the most acute attorney shortages, although several counties in the Mississippi Delta stood out as exceptions. Not surprisingly, the attorney population in Arkansas’s Rural Counties is an aging one. We also found that many other nonmetropolitan counties — those with populations somewhat larger than the Rural Counties — have poor attorney-to-population ratios, suggesting that attorney shortages are on the horizon there, too.
Meanwhile, Arkansas’s attorneys tend to be highly concentrated in the state’s population centers, with particular overrepresentation in Pulaski County (the state’s most populous county and home to state capital Little Rock) and two contiguous central Arkansas counties: 48% of the state’s attorneys are a mismatch for just 21% of the state’s population in those three counties. The state’s second and third most populous counties, Benton and Washington, in the state’s booming northwest corridor, have attorney populations more commensurate with their populations.
Our survey of students at the state’s two law schools revealed few student respondents who grew up in or had spent much time in Arkansas’s Rural Counties or in similarly low-population counties in other states. Further, only a handful of students indicate that they plan to practice in the state’s nonmetropolitan areas, let alone the Rural Counties specifically. Nevertheless, many students — particularly among those who grew up in the Rural Counties — expressed openness to working in these counties if given specific opportunities and incentives to do so. When asked about what deterred them from pursuing rural practice, the most dominant theme was concern about economic viability; a lack of cultural and other amenities associated with urban living was a close second. Some students also expressed concern about the greater challenge of finding a life partner in rural places. A number of students expressed very negative attitudes toward rural people, places and practice. Recurring themes included an expectation of rural bias toward racial and sexual minorities and women; concerns about lack of anonymity in the community and lack of professionalism in the justice system; and a shortage of clients able to afford an attorney’s services. Still, a critical mass — certainly enough to meet the need in Arkansas’s rural communities — indicated willingness to practice in a rural locale if provided fiscal and professional supports, e.g., student loan repayment assistance, mentoring, training in law practice management. When the few students who indicated their intent to practice in a rural area were asked about what they found appealing about such a prospect, the most common theme was autonomy — the ability to have one’s own practice and to develop and maintain local clientele.
Respondents to the lawyer survey were generally less negative about rural practice than their law student counterparts. On the whole, most attorneys expressed contentment with their practice location, whether rural or urban. One surprise among the lawyer survey results was that employment opportunities for spouses were less important than we anticipated, perhaps because urban lawyers — the vast majority of survey respondents — take these for granted.
We close with suggested reforms for Arkansas’s institutional stakeholders. Among other actions, we suggest that Arkansas follow the lead of South Dakota and offer loan repayment assistance to attorneys who are willing to make a multi-year commitment to practice in an underserved rural area. This incentive has proved popular in South Dakota, which has doubled the size of its program in just two years in response to a high degree of attorney interest. Our survey results give us every reason to believe that such a program, as well as other interventions to bolster the rural lawyer population in Arkansas, could be just as successful. In any event, we anticipate that our efforts to document in detail the rural attorney shortage in Arkansas will provide an incentive — and, we hope, a model — for other states wishing to better understand and alleviate their rural access-to-justice deficits.
Keywords: rural, geography, legal profession, lawyers, access to justice, urban, nonmetropolitan, population loss, legal education, modest means, low income
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