While the running joke may be that there are too many lawyers in the world, in many rural places in the United States, there are demonstrably too few.
Despite efforts in recent years by a handful of states, universities and legal associations to ease the problem, there remains a glaring lack of lawyers in many far-flung places. This leaves those areas and their residents without easy access to legal advice for family issues, wills, estates and property transactions, in addition to any criminal or civil legal disputes. Residents often have to drive long distances to another city or rely on remote video meetings.
“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,” said Sam Clinch, associate executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association, a state with few lawyers outside its largest cities, Lincoln and Omaha. Nebraska has a small state loan repayment program to help a few attorneys who agree to practice rurally; in a decade, the program has placed 39 lawyers in rural parts of the state.
Some 40% of all counties in the United States — 1,272 of 3,141 — have fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, so few that they are considered “legal deserts,” according to the most comprehensive survey of attorneys available, conducted by the American Bar Association in 2020.
More recent smaller studies have shown no easing of the problem. An updated American Bar Association lawyer census in 2022 did not break down the attorneys by residence but noted that the overall number of lawyers has remained about the same.
And overarching numbers can be deceiving too.
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. New York state has more lawyers than any state in the country (184,000), the 2020 survey showed, but rural Orleans County, New York, holds just 31 attorneys for the county’s 40,000 residents, about three-fourths of an attorney for every 1,000 people.
California comes in second in overall totals, but it too has counties such as Merced, with 0.74 of a lawyer for every 1,000 people.
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