The Justice Gap in Rural America

There is a lawyer shortage.

That’s right, there is a lawyer shortage.

We have somehow ended up in a situation where law schools are graduating more people than there are job openings but yet we have a lawyer shortage. How is a lawyer shortage even remotely possible? The answer is resources (in this case lawyers) are not being allocated in an equitable manner. According to 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, rural areas lag behind, even on a per-capita basis, urban centers when it comes to employing attorneys. The shortage represents an unmet need, a demonstrative hole in the market that people who desperately need help fall through.

Lawyers serve an important role in society. Despite often being maligned by popular culture, lawyers help secure the rights of our most vulnerable. They help victims of domestic violence obtain protective orders against violent partners, single parents obtain child support from neglectful co-parents, economically disadvantaged spouses obtain equitable treatment in contested divorce proceedings, tenants sue neglectful landlords, and other items that are too numerous to name in this space.

Disparities in Employment

We can prove the employment shortage by using data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to analyze legal employment in different geographic areas. This can be accomplished by looking at both the location quotient and employment per 1,000 citizens. If the location quotient of a given area is 1 then its

Courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupation Employment & Wages, May 2015

Courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupation Employment & Wages, May 2015

employment of lawyers as a share of local employment is at the national average.

In Maine, only the Portland area has a location quotient greater than 1, this actually contrasts with Maine’s other metropolitan areas, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn, which have location quotients of 0.52 and 0.43 respectively. What this means for example is that when compared to the national average, the share of lawyers in Lewiston-Auburn’s local economy is only 43% of the national average. The employment per 1,000 citizens for Portland and Lewiston-Auburn is 4,908 and 1,922 respectively.

The problem becomes more pronounced when you look at the rural communities in Maine. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has divided rural Maine into two separate and somewhat geographically arbitrary regions. One region, which roughly contains Washington, Hancock, Piscataquis, and Aroostook Counties (which we’ll call Maine Rural Region A) and another that contains Oxford, Franklin, Knox, Waldo, Kennebec, Somerset, and Sagadahoc Counties (which we’ll call Maine Rural Region B). For the former region, the location quotient is 0.33 and the employment per 1,000 people is 1.458. For the latter region, the location quotient is 0.63 and the employment per 1,000 people is 2.775.

In 2014, the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar commissioned a study of the demographics of the lawyers in the state. According to this report, only 10% of lawyers outside of Cumberland County are under the age of 35, while 65% are over the age of 50. As bad as the rural/urban disparity is, signs are that it could get even worse in the coming years.

Maine’s situation is not unique. Only two nonmetropolitan areas in the country have a location quotient of greater than 1, Southwest Montana and Central New Hampshire. Further, according to the New York Times, while 20% of the nation’s population reside in rural communities, only 2% of lawyers serve these communities. There are entire counties with no attorneys and in some rural communities, people have to drive upwards of the 100 miles to see the nearest attorney. The problem has gotten so egregious that the American Bar Association has asked for help from state and local governments to help solve it.

The Effects of This Shortage

At the most basic and easy to quantify level, the shortage causes strain on local governments. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that indigent clients have a constitutional right to counsel in criminal proceedings. Courts have to satisfy this requirement, regardless of whether or not an attorney is immediately available. As a result, there are many rural communities that are forced to pay extra money for attorneys to come in and represent clients who need representation. As Pat Goetzinger, native of Bennett County, South Dakota and past president of the State Bar of South Dakota noted in this 2014 article in the ABA Journal, local governments may also have to pay a substantial amount of money to bring in prosecutors and even judges to hear cases. For local governments in poor rural communities, this can represent a rather large expenditure and it has very real consequences for the people who encounter the criminal justice system. As noted in a recent NPR story, criminal defendants in rural communities often accept pleas that lead them to having criminal records as a means of allowing the county to avoid the expenditure of bringing in an outside attorney to serve as their attorney.

Further, there is no constitutional right to an attorney in divorce, custody, domestic violence, landlord/tenant, or any other civil suit. This is an issue that particularly affects low-income people, many of whom cannot afford to travel to hire an attorney. Another byproduct of the current distribution of pattern of lawyers is that there often are not lawyers in low-income rural communities. For example, in Georgia, 70 percent of the state’s lawyers are in the Atlanta metropolitan area while 70 percent of the state’s poor live outside of that area. For low-income rural citizens, this represents a substantial barrier to justice.

If someone cannot hire an attorney, they either do not seek legal remedies to solve their problem or they represent themselves in court. Many seek help of a local legal aid agency, only to find that due to a lack of resources, they are unable to help. According to the Legal Services Corporation, 80% of the legal needs of the poor go unmet.

Go Get a Job?

Given this information, it would seem that the answer to this shortage would be to ask people to go and work in rural communities. Data suggests that many law school graduates are currently unemployed and looking for work so if there is a shortage, why aren’t they filling it? For example, in 2014, the University of Maine School of Law was only able to play 51.88% of its graduates in jobs that required bar passage. Why aren’t the unemployed lawyers moving to rural communities and starting their practices?

First of all, you can’t create jobs where there is no funding. As you might imagine, most rural lawyers are either solo practitioners or work in very small firms. For a young person to move to a rural community, they have to either get hired by a firm with limited openings and possibly limited capital to expand or start their own firm. The former is certainly possible but the latter is prohibitively difficult. Like most new graduates of any program, newly minted attorneys do not have easy access to the capital required to fund the opening of a new business. Even if a young lawyer is able to get past the startup costs by taking over the firm of a retiring lawyer, they then face issues of paying to maintain the firm. Running a law practice is expensive, one needs to maintain malpractice insurance, subscriptions to expensive legal databases, and depending on your case load, you may even have to hire support staff. It takes most businesses months and sometimes years to even turn a profit, meaning that a young lawyer would be expected to have saved up enough money for basic necessities. For many, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, this is an insurmountable barrier.

Beyond the capital issues, many also lack the knowledge and expertise to be very effective right out of school. If you scour the internet, you’ll find many articles that attempt to paint “going rural” as the panacea for the employment shortage among lawyers. It is not and frankly this is dangerous advice. Dangerous for the lawyer, who may ruin himself financially trying to open a firm in a new place and also for the clients who may see themselves inadequately represented by an inexperienced lawyer.

South Dakota and Nebraska have been leaders in attempting to address this problem. In 2013, the South Dakota legislature approved the creation of a Recruitment Assistance Pilot Program, which provides a yearly payment of 90% of the cost of in-state tuition at the University of South Dakota School of Law. According to their website, the tuition at the law school is $14,688. The program lasts for five years and there are a myriad of requirements that lawyers have to meet to remain eligible.

In Nebraska, the Nebraska State Bar Association has launched the Rural Practice Initiative, which helps to place students at the University of Nebraska’s law school with lawyers in the state’s rural communities for summer clerkships. The Nebraska State Bar Association also sponsors bus tours with law students and new lawyers to rural Nebraska so they can see and learn more about small towns in the state. Nebraska Law has also created the Rural Law Opportunities program, which allows high schoolers from rural parts of the state to enroll in one of four state universities and obtain automatic admittance and a scholarship to attend the University of Nebraska’s law school, provided that they meet certain requirements.

Iowa and North Dakota are also addressing this problem by working to pair students at their flagship state university’s law schools with rural practitioners.

It is important to note that being a lawyer in a rural community is hardly a lucrative

Courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupation Employment & Wages, May 2015

Courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupation Employment & Wages, May 2015

endeavor, even controlling for the cost of living. A lawyer in rural Maine Rural Region A, for example, has a median income of $80,070 whereas a lawyer in the Portland area has a median income of $112,080. There is an even a contrast between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn where the median income is only $78,820. Lawyers in Bangor do slightly better with a median salary of $88,230.

Pay for lawyers who represent the most vulnerable and work for legal aid organizations is even lower. According to NALP, the median salary for a legal aid attorney with 11-15 years of experience is a mere $62,550. The median entry level salary is $40,000. With many students graduating with six-figure debt loads, the cut in pay can seem daunting. There are however government programs, such as PAYE, that provide repayment assistance by lowering a student’s payments to a level that is based on a percentage of their discretionary income.


It is pretty clear that we have a problem. There are too few lawyers serving the needs of rural America and if demographic trends hold up, this problem will only get worse over time. There are relatively few lawyers in rural America and the ones who are there are getting older. Under the current system, only 2% of lawyers serve 20% of the American population. This is a rather egregious problem and a substantial barrier to equitable justice.

Christopher Chavis

About Christopher Chavis

Chris is a 2012 graduate of Dartmouth College and a 2015 graduate of Michigan State University College of Law. He currently works as a non-profit, anti-poverty consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina. In his spare time, he is a rural poverty advocate and news junkie with a passion for reading and writing about all things rural. In the past, he has lived in rural Maine, New Hampshire, and North Carolina and his academic background has focused heavily on rural social policy and resource allocation. Because of the lengthy time that he lived in rural New England, he is also a huge Boston sports fan.