WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Legal Profession Tries To Evolve As Rural Attorneys Disappear

Mar 6, 2020
Originally published on March 3, 2020 8:04 am

It’s hard for rural communities in Illinois to attract or keep the doctors, teachers, or even grocery stores which together make everyday life possible in a small town.

Now, another professional shortage has emerged in rural Illinois: There are not enough attorneys, and the problem is getting worse. The Chicagoland area is home to 65% of Illinois’ population but 90% of its lawyers, leaving the 95 other counties with the remaining 10%. There are 39 counties in Illinois that haven’t added a new attorney in the last four years, according to the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.

“Is the small-town lawyer going to exist, 10, 15, or 20 years from now? We don’t have the answer to that, but we do see a need, and we as a firm have a desire to meet that need,” said Amelia Buragas, a partner with Bolen Robinson & Ellis (BRE Law) who is based in Bloomington.

Last month Buragas’ firm opened a branch office in Lincoln, where there is a shortage of lawyers. Only two new attorneys have begun practicing there in the past four years. The problem is most acute in the family law area.

“That’s concerning,” Buragas said. “When you’re dealing with a family law case, those are very serious issues that impact your life and the life of your family. And people trying to navigate that system on their own, we saw the potential need to do good in the community.”

PRACTICING IN LINCOLN

There are less than 25 lawyers in Logan County (population 30,305), just southwest of McLean County, where Lincoln is the county seat. The historic courthouse in downtown Lincoln remains the center of town.

After less than two months, demand was so high in the Lincoln area that Buragas’ BRE Law firm added regular office hours starting this week to meet with potential clients.

Thomas Harris saw the shortage in Lincoln too. He was on the front lines as a judge based in Lincoln from 2007 to 2013, when he became an appellate court justice.

With few options, Harris saw more and more people representing themselves in his courtroom; the legal term is “pro se.” Nationally, 3 out of 5 people in civil cases go to court without a lawyer, according to the Self-Represented Litigation Network.

“It was such a luxury almost to have lawyers presenting the case, because this isn’t easy,” Harris said. “That’s one thing folks are most shocked at when they get into court. They think there’s going to be a lot of assistance provided by the judge. And the judge is not allowed to provide that assistance.”

That’s especially true, he said, for child custody cases.

“Those are very difficult cases. They are very fact-intensive that require parties to present evidence. There are legal rules, rules of procedure, evidentiary rules that they’re required to comply with. Without a lawyer, these folks can be at a loss as to how to proceed.”

Harris said that puts a judge in a terrible bind.

“Because a judge has to make this very critical determination, potentially without all of the facts he or she needs to be able to make it,” Harris said.

Harris serves on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, which is trying to make it easier for people to represent themselves. He has a few theories as to why rural lawyers are disappearing.

He said clients have grown accustomed to the internet’s self-help model of Googling everything. That’s devalued the legal profession by making lawyers seem like a luxury, he said.

“And general economic circumstances prevent more folks from having representation now than it used to be,” Harris said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “It really is hard for people to come up with the necessary funds to hire for some of these cases.”

For young lawyers graduating from one of Illinois’ nine law schools, their own student loan debt—often in the six figures—is a major consideration, said Mark Palmer, a Champaign-Urbana native who is chief counsel for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. His recent research on the “disappearing rural lawyer” (Part 1 and Part 2) is well-read in Illinois legal circles.

Like everyone else, Palmer said, law school graduates are flocking toward urban areas. Logan County, for example, lost around 5% of its population from 2010 to 2018.

“That’s a huge cloud hovering over their head, and they immediately have to think of their well-being, their ability to not only pay that student debt back, but earn a reasonable living and find a supply-and-demand that can meet their needs,” Palmer said. “They’re seeing the solutions to those questions from much more urban areas.”

That doesn’t mean they’re always right. Rural lawyers argue that, if you do it right, you can make a very comfortable living in small or medium-sized communities, Palmer said.

That’s what Maggie Clark is doing. After working in Bloomington right after law school, she recently chose to set up her own practice back in her hometown of Pontiac. She opened Jan. 1.

Before going out on her own, Clark asked around the Livingston County legal community and found its current 45 or so lawyers were swamped. And when people couldn’t find an attorney in town, they’d hire one from Bloomington-Normal—which means they have to pay for that lawyer to travel to Pontiac. Clark did the math and saw there would be enough business.

Another challenge for a small county (population 35,000): conflicts of interest.

“If I’m an attorney and I’ve represented someone on a case, and later they’re getting divorced and I represented the other party, I have to send them somewhere else,” Clark said. “When you have a very limited number of law firms to pick from, you run into those issues.”

Clark said it’s not just the number of attorneys that’s the problem.

“You go to these smaller, rural communities and you look around, your lawyers are older, there’s not a lot of young faces. There’s not a lot of women. And there are some cases where your client is going to say, ‘I want a woman to represent me. I want someone who understands what I’m doing through to be the one to guide me that process,’” Clark said.

A short of attorneys also means it’s harder to find one who can take on a pro bono case (for free). Ford County (population 13,000) only has around 12 attorneys, and only four or five of them don’t work on the bench or in the state’s attorney’s office, said Mike McElvain, a Bloomington attorney who serves on the Public Interest Law Initiative’s Eleventh Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee.

“It’s worked well here (in Bloomington-Normal). But the outlying counties, we’re having a difficult time finding attorneys with time and expertise to handle their pro bono needs in those counties.”

FINDING SOLUTIONS

There are efforts underway to chip away at the problem—or at least treat its symptoms.

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, on which Justice Harris serves, is working to develop legal forms that are written in plain English—not legalese—so that self-represented litigants can better understand them. The commission also supports the continued and expanded use of court-based facilitators/navigators, including JusticeCorps, which has a McLean County presence.

“But it doesn’t really have the ability to help in what I think is the most important area—enhancing the availability of lawyers for folks,” Harris said. “Because ultimately, in order to have true access to justice, folks need to have legal representation in many of these cases.”

Other states are facing similar issues. A working group for the New Mexico Supreme Court recently recommended more aggressive recruiting of out-of-state attorneys and loan forgiveness for lawyers providing services in rural or underserved areas of New Mexico.

A partial solution in Illinois is what’s called limited scope representation, which is allowed under the Illinois Rule of Professional Conduct. A lawyer agrees to help with part of a legal case, but not all of it, usually for a reduced fee. The a la carte lawyer may just prepare paperwork for you, or appears in court for only some parts of your case.

“It’s completely contrary to our training through,” McElvain said. “Our mothers taught us to clean up everything on our plate. In my 47 years, I’ve been taught that when I take on something, I finish it. So it’s a little awkward doing a little piece of the whole claim and then stepping away from it. Hopefully, we’ll all learn to accept that.”

Mark Palmer, with the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, said there’s also been a rise nationally in subscription services for legal consultations. Some examples we found include Rocket Lawyer offering premium membership for $39 a month. LegalShield starts at $25 per month.

“That’s where the lawyers and the legal profession need to step up and start to see, what are some solutions?” Palmer said. “So that everybody, regardless of your geographic location, can get reasonable and cost-effective access to justice.”

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