Financial Aid For Attys Could Help Close Rural Justice Gap

By Elise Hansen | September 20, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Financial incentives and highlighting the benefits of small-town life could help draw young attorneys to practice in small, tribal and rural areas, said panelists at a conference addressing access to justice in these communities.

Wednesday's panel, which was hosted by Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law's Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center, addressed a variety of strategies to recruit and retain criminal law professionals in underserved rural areas. Some small, tribal and rural communities have been dubbed "legal deserts" to reflect the dwindling number of attorneys and judges available to serve residents.

The diminished legal services can jeopardize residents' constitutional rights, such as the right to a speedy trial and access to counsel, said panelist Lisa Pruitt, the Martin Luther King Jr. professor of law at the University of California Davis School of Law.

"There are very pragmatic concerns and there are constitutional concerns," Pruitt said. "There are a number of implications of these attorney deserts for criminal justice systems."

Money is one of the main obstacles to attracting and keeping young lawyers in rural and tribal communities, Pruitt said. As attorneys graduate law school with ever-increasing debt loads, financial incentives can help ease the fiscal pressure of working in rural and tribal areas, she said.

South Dakota, for example, has used public funds to help keep law school tuition lower as well as instituted a recruitment program that helps fund attorneys who practice for five years in underserved counties. And Stanford's law school offers loan forgiveness to certain students who work in underserved communities, Pruitt noted.

Such programs are rare in the legal industry, but could provide a major boost to rural areas, she said.

"I think what South Dakota has proved is that if you do make this fiscally doable, if you do make this a financially sustainable proposition, there are lawyers out there who want to take advantage of these opportunities," Pruitt said.

Even smaller forms of financial assistance that defray the costs of relocation can help, said Kristen Kochekian, an associate at Gillette Law Office PC and a participant in South Dakota's attorney recruitment program.

The legal field could allow greater bar waiver fees, help cover bar preparation courses or increase reciprocity practices with neighboring states, she said.

"I think for people to have assistance with bar passage, with prep courses, admissions into bars ... I think it would be monumental," Kochekian said. "And [would] probably help shift a lot of people and make them reconsider at least a second time going into a rural community."

Law firms looking to recruit new attorneys can also highlight the advantages of living in rural areas, said Ryan Anthony Reid, a regional attorney manager for the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office.

Reid, who lives in northwestern Wisconsin, noted that his area has the benefit of wildlife, ample outdoor activities and a lower cost of living. That may not appeal to everyone, but it does appeal to some, he said.

"When you're hiring and getting the word out, try to find people who fit your area and fit your office or fit your theme of why they want to be a public defender in a rural area," he said. "Those people that want to work in rural areas are out there; you just need to find them," he said.

Kochekian said that rural life doesn't have to be viewed through a negative lens.

"The idea that you're giving up something to move into a rural community, I think that's a sad way to look at it, because there's a tremendous amount of benefit that rural communities can offer," she said. "It's a great way to grow up, and I think it's a resource that [firms] can highlight rather than look at it is a disadvantage to overcome."

Ultimately, while financial programs and strong recruitment can help certain areas "green" their legal deserts, those are piecemeal solutions to a wide-reaching problem, Pruitt said. She called for greater action at the federal level, similar to the federal government's efforts around bringing physicians into rural communities.

"A lot of these challenges are really crying out for big solutions," she said. "We have to decide as a nation the value we place in rural communities and the things they need — and, in the case of the criminal justice system, the things that are constitutionally mandated," she said. "And then we have to be willing to pay for them."

--Additional reporting by Jack Karp. Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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