Having lawyers available is key (Editorial)
Lawyer jokes are fun to tell, especially to a lawyer. But when the time comes that you need an attorney — whether it’s a property exchange, making an estate plan or a civil or criminal action — things get pretty serious.
In much of the rural United States, it’s even more serious as access to attorneys is thin to non-existent.
According to a 2020 attorney survey by the American Bar Association, 40 percent of all counties in the United States have fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 residents. That might trigger cheers on its face, but it is so few that those counties are considered “legal deserts.”
“That’s an access problem when you are asking someone to drive 100 miles or more to do a simple will or a simple divorce,” Sam Clinch, associate executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association said in a recent Stateline article.
Nationwide, there are roughly four lawyers for every 1,000 residents, but those numbers don’t mean much because so many lawyers are concentrated in cities.
To address the issue, several states, including Nebraska, South Dakota and Maine, have launched loan repayment programs and other measures to attract newly minted attorneys to its rural parts. Program proponents say if they can entice an attorney to a rural town for their first few years in practice with school loan repayment stipends and assurances of quicker experience, there’s a better chance the attorneys put down roots and stick around.
The bar associations in some states run national summer programs or fellowships in which lawyers spend time with rural firms.
“You often don’t think you want to have a lawyer, but often you end up needing ’em,” said Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, and a fifth-generation logger, who sponsored legislation to establish a legal clinic in a rural area near the Canadian border.
In the populous Mid-Atlantic, where many large cities dot the landscape and many of its towns have more people than whole counties in the western United States, locating an attorney is much less of an issue. Quite the opposite, the region’s litigious environment has residents, farmers included, on edge concerning business decisions and how they operate. Also for farmers, the more pressing issue is finding an attorney well-attuned to the needs and unique problems they face.
That ultimately came to a head some 10 years ago when an environmental group, sued a Maryland family farmer for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act. If that weren’t bad enough, the environmental group, Waterkeeper Alliance, solicited the aid of the taxpayer-supported University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic. The rhetoric of the farmer contributing toward his own legal attack overwhelmed the news cycle.
Fortunately, the farmer prevailed in the case, but not without the scars of a year’s long legal battle. The episode also laid bare the substantial need for legal aid in the farming community and through legislation, the Agriculture Law Education Initiative was born.
A partnership between the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Francis King Carey School of Law and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the initiative acknowledges “a realization that Maryland’s farm families need more information about the laws that impact their operations.”
For the last decade, its legal and Extension specialists have sought to help farmers understand and comply with state, federal and local laws and regulations.
Whenever they speak to groups, the specialists are quick to say their comments should not be taken as legal advice, but their efforts educate and direct farmers to the right resources to address legal issues.
Jokes aside, having access to a lawyer who gets what you do and can help you do it, is a valuable thing.