Lack­ing lawyers, states try new ap­proaches

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Margery A. Beck

omaha» In Wheeler County, Neb., if you want a di­vorce, at­tor­neys who can help you are nearly 50 miles away.

There’s only one at­tor­ney, James Mc­Nally, in the north-cen­tral county, and he is its sole pros­e­cu­tor. He’s been there for 50 years and was at one point one of five at­tor­neys. He has a side prac­tice han­dling pro­bate and es­tate ser­vices but ob­vi­ously can’t take crim­i­nal de­fense cases.

There’s a rea­son more lawyers don’t land in places such as Wheeler County, one of 11 coun­ties that have no at­tor­neys out­side of elected pros­e­cu­tors, he said. With so few peo­ple to serve and re­cent grad­u­ates car­ry­ing loads of stu­dent debt, it just doesn’t pay, he said.

“They go where the money is, and that’s not a small town,” he said.

It’s an is­sue that sev­eral Plains states tried to ad­dress years ago but hasn’t seemed to be solved — par­tic­u­larly in states such as Ne­braska, with vast stretches of sparsely pop­u­lated land. In re­sponse, Ne­braska has launched a pro­gram that tar­gets ru­ral high schools stu­dents, hop­ing to per­suade them to re­turn to their roots to prac­tice law.

Mod­eled af­ter the Ru­ral Health Op­por­tu­ni­ties Pro­gram, which re­cruits ru­ral stu­dents to be­come small­town At­tor­ney Thomas Maul crosses 13th Street in down­town Colum­bus, Neb., on Thurs­day. He was in­stru­men­tal in push­ing the pro­gram to re­cruit lawyers to ru­ral Ne­braska. Nati Harnik, AP doc­tors, Ne­braska’s pro­gram tar­gets high­achiev­ing stu­dents with plans to go to law school, of­fer­ing full-tu­ition un­der­grad­u­ate schol­ar­ships to three ru­ral Ne­braska col­leges: Chadron State Col­lege, the Univer­sity of Ne­braskaKear­ney and Wayne State Col­lege.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing stu­dents who main­tain a 3.5 GPA and get a min­i­mum LSAT score au­to­mat­i­cally will be ac­cepted to the Univer­sity of Ne­braska Col­lege of Law.

“The idea is: Let’s start with the kids that have come from ru­ral ar­eas,” said Thomas Maul, the im­me­di­ate past pres­i­dent of the Ne­braska State Bar As­so­ci­a­tion who helped get the Ru­ral Law Op­por­tu­ni­ties Pro­gram off the ground. “I re­ally think it could be a game changer. No other state has this.”

Like the med­i­cal pro­gram, the ru­ral lawyer pro­gram does not in­clude a re­quire­ment that the stu­dents prac­tice in ru­ral ar­eas af­ter law school.

“The ru­ral health pro­gram re­ports about a 60 per­cent re­turn on in­vest­ment, mean­ing about 60 per­cent of the stu­dents re­turn to ru­ral ar­eas to prac­tice medicine,” Maul said. “We hope to achieve sim­i­lar re­sults with this pro­gram.”

South Dakota is be­lieved to be the first state to pay lawyers to prac­tice in ru­ral ar­eas, start­ing in 2013 and of­fer­ing an an­nual sub­sidy of 90 per­cent of the cost of a year at the Univer­sity of South Dakota Law School to live and prac­tice in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

Since the pro­gram be­gan, it has placed 17 at­tor­neys in ru­ral coun­ties that have a pop­u­la­tion of 10,000 or less, ac­cord­ing to Suzanne Star, di­rec­tor of pol­icy and le­gal ser­vices for the South Dakota State Court Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Of­fice.

“We con­sider it to be very suc­cess­ful,” Star said. “We are now look­ing at leg­is­la­tion to ex­pand the pro­grams to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in coun­ties where there are more than 10,000 peo­ple but do not have lo­cal ac­cess to an at­tor­ney.”

But it hasn’t been a panacea, Star ac­knowl­edged. Re­cent re­tire­ments and re­lo­ca­tions left two South Dakota coun­ties with no at­tor­neys, eight coun­ties with one lawyer and four coun­ties with two.

Ne­braska, North and South Dakota and Iowa all run pro­grams to help place re­cent law school grads in sum­mer clerk­ships at ru­ral firms as a way to get new lawyers into ru­ral ar­eas. But the states have learned in­tro­duc­tions sim­ply aren’t enough.

In south­west­ern Iowa, some coun­ties have only one or two at­tor­neys — and they’re rapidly ap­proach­ing re­tire­ment age, said at­tor­ney Philip Gar­land, 71, the chair­man of the Iowa State Bar As­so­ci­a­tion’s Ru­ral Prac­tice Com­mit­tee.

He’s been try­ing to get those ag­ing at­tor­neys to fol­low his lead and hire young as­so­ci­ates, which can be ex­pen­sive, and con­sider turn­ing over, not sell­ing, prac­tices to young lawyers al­ready sad­dled with loads of stu­dent debt.

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