AuthorSneed, Thomas

I was a rural lawyer. The law firm had three attorneys and was in small town in western Kentucky. During eight years in the local legal community, there were opportunities to be the county law librarian, the local CLE coordinator, and the treasurer for the county bar association. Every law firm library collection contained the same print resources with access to possibly one legal research database. On the career spectrum, local attorneys became judges and members of the state legislature. For networking purposes, lawyers in the same law firms would chose different civic organizations to join to ensure the law firm had a member in as many groups as possible. It was typical that every lawyer in town was active within both the legal community and the local populace.

Today, many of the lawyers from this part of western Kentucky are nearing retirement age. However, the number of younger lawyers in the area is low and not growing. From all appearances, the older attorneys will start to retire in the next few years with few replacement options in place. For rural areas, this is becoming the norm.

Numerous states have started programs to encourage attorneys to practice in less populated areas. (1) South Dakota has created the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program in conjunction with the State Bar of South Dakota, (2) while a joint venture between the Vermont Bar Association and the Vermont Department of Libraries has established the Rural Legal Education Project to expand education on legal issues to Vermont adults. (3) Law schools have also stepped in to help. Examples include the Rural Law Opportunities Program involving the University of Nebraska College of Law and undergraduate institutions in Nebraska. (4) the Rural Externship Program funded by the Dane G. Hansen Foundation at the Washburn University School of Law, (5) and the Rural Practice Fellowships at the University of Maine School of Law. (6)

Academic law libraries can also play a role in preparing future attorneys for careers in the rural areas of our country. The library may not always be first on the mind of law school administrators when thinking of innovators in the areas of curriculum or alumni relations. However, the law library is well positioned to use the expertise and experience of the librarians to prepare students for rural practice issues. This paper will explore three ways for academic law libraries to assist in this vital mission. (7) Libraries must be willing to teach state-specific legal research courses, present insight into critical leadership and business skills, and provide "small benefits" such as library privileges, access to resources and librarians assistance for alumni and members of the local bar supplemented with the appropriate marketing to build the library brand. These minor additions to the library's mission will not only benefit the future rural lawyer, but are beneficial to all students and can place the library in a positive light for preparing practice ready attorneys for any locale.


    The picture of a rural area may be different for everyone. Even government agencies come up with different ways to describe rural areas. (8) There are also the effects of being in a rural area, such as a lack of job opportunities, lower wages, and a weaker infrastructure in areas such as high speed internet, all of which help lead to a consistent decline in population. (9) The larger concept of access to justice also is a part of our rural landscape. These issues have been covered widely and are beyond the scope of this discussion. (10) However, a general overview of the concept of rural can be helpful.

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rural (in the adjective form and as it relates to an occupation, employment or work) signifies something carried out in or involving the country as opposed to a town or city. (11) This basic definition for rural provides a guideline which can be better developed through other sources. (12) Ken Deavers describes three characteristics of rural areas: small scale, low-density settlements: distance from urban centers: and specialization of rural economies. (13) Of particular note are Mr. Deavers' comments on distance from urban centers. (14) Mr. Deavers points out that distance can lead to social and cultural isolation, (15) which is certainly a factor for rural attorneys who may be one of only a few legal professionals within a large geographic area.

    Government agencies provide more detailed statistical analysis to the definition of rural. (16) According to the United States Census Bureau, a rural area consists of all territory, population and housing units located outside an urbanized area and an urban cluster. (17) The Census Bureau goes on to note that out of the 3,143 counties in the United States, there are 704 completely rural counties with populations accounting for 5.4 million people. (18) This definition from the United States Census Bureau can be contrasted with that of the Office of Management and Budget. (19) This office regularly revises metropolitan statistical areas, with the most recent update defining a metropolitan statistical area as having at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more population. (20) finally, the United States Department of Agriculture Economic (USDA) Research Service builds on the definitions from the Office of Management and Budget and differentiates between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, with nonmetropolitan areas including areas with "open countryside, rural towns (places with fewer than 2.500 people), and urban areas with populations ranging from 2,500 to 49,999 that are not part of larger labor market areas (metropolitan areas)". (21) Using data extrapolated from the USDA Economic Research Service, there are 20 states with a rural population over 25% with the rural population for the entire United States coming in at 14%. (22) These data points from the various agencies come up with differing interpretations and percentages for defining rural areas but still point back to two main points. Rural areas can be characterized by low population density and distance from urban areas.


      The story of the rural attorney has been covered in both popular media and legal news sources. (23) Titles such as "In Rural America, there are job opportunities and a need for lawyers" (24) and "8,500 residents. 12 attorneys: America's rural lawyer shortage" (25) illustrate the issues from just the byline. These articles tell the stories of the veteran lawyer who can't retire from his town of 94 so as not to leave the town without a legal professional (26) and the married couple who are recent law school graduates moving to a town of 1,002 in rural North Dakota to open separate law firms. (27) The Daily Report, a legal newspaper covering metro Atlanta and the slate of Georgia, devoted an issue to the rural lawyer gap and the issues surrounding the dichotomy of a state with a major metropolitan area yet large rural areas blanketing the majority of the rest of the slate. (28) One of the most telling stories described an attorney, with a primary practice 75 miles from his home, who maintained a second office only open on Friday in his hometown to attempt to serve the local population. (29) There are even attorneys who have found a cottage industry in discussing the activities of a rural attorney. (30)

      Another major characteristic regarding the rural practice of law is the reality that many rural lawyers have a lower income than their urban counterparts. (31) Charts A and B describe the annual mean wage for the top five rural and top five urban stales. (32) The live rural states all rank in the bottom 15 for annual mean wage of attorneys. (33) On the other hand, the five urban states all rank in the top 20 for annual mean wage. (34) This variance is no doubt a factor for attorneys contemplating rural practice and will have an effect on resource decisions for a small or solo law firm.


      South Dakota has been one of the most, active states in addressing the decline in rural attorneys. The state has a total population of 867,666 with 52% of the population located in a rural area. (37) However, there are only around 1.800 active in-state lawyers. (38) In 2013. the South Dakota Legislature passed "[a]n Act to provide for the transfer and appropriation of funds upon the occurrence of certain events and to assist rural counties in the recruitment of attorneys." (39) This law granted the South Dakota Unified Judicial System the authority to create a program to help in recruiting attorneys to rural areas (40), which became known as the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program. (41) The State Bar of South Dakota has also joined with Project Rural Practice, a task force created to help further examine the lack of attorneys in rural South Dakota, (42) and the South Dakota Law Review, the flagship journal for the University of South Dakota School of Law. held a symposium in 2014 to build on the conversation. (4)'

      The key aspects of South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Program are threefold: location eligibility, attorney eligibility, and loan repayment. (44) Interested counties or municipalities must apply to participate and an evaluation will occur to determine both the need for and the sustainability of an attorney. (45) Counties can be eligible with a population less than 10,000, (46) while municipalities must be smaller than 3,500 persons. (47) with other criteria such as demographics, judicial recommendations, and location to other counties or municipalities involved in the program also considered. (48) For attorney eligibility, the lawyer must agree to practice in the area for at least live years (49) and will receive an incentive payment equal to 90% of the University of South Dakota School of Law resident tuition. (50)

      Law schools have also started to become involved in...

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