Of the approximately 183,000 lawyers in New York state, only three percent of them live and work in the rural areas that spread across thousands of square miles.
This has caused a scarcity of attorneys in the state's small-town communities and a mounting access to justice crisis that up until now had largely gone unaddressed.
In July, New York State Bar Association President Hank Greenberg announced that NYSBA would tackle the problem head-on before it's too late.
"NYSBA is deeply committed to making sure all New Yorkers across the state, regardless of where they live, are treated fairly by our justice system and have access to the legal services they require," said Greenberg. "That's why NYSBA has created a Task Force on Rural Justice to investigate the impact of rural attorney shortages on access to justice, challenges in delivering legal services in rural areas, and the unique practice needs of rural lawyers."
Justice Stan L. Pritzker, of the Appellate Division, Third Department, and Taier Perlman, staff attorney at Albany Law School's Government Law Center and the leader of its Rural Law Initiative, co-chair the task force.
The task force, comprised of rural lawyers, members of the judiciary, legal service organization leaders and other invested stakeholders from around the state, are hard at work identifying viable solutions in order to make recommendations for potential changes in law and public policy to support rural law practice and greater access to justice across New York's rural communities.
"We hope that our efforts and final report with law and policy recommendations will be well-received by the NYSBA House of Delegates in Spring 2020 and hope that our work helps the New York State Bar Association stand out as a true leader in addressing the rural access to justice crisis endemic to rural communities across America," said Perlman.
The task force is examining multiple complex issues within five subcommittees: rural law practice, broadband and technology, funding, law schools and new attorneys, and law and policy.
Experts have been meeting with the task force on its primary issues to better understand and tackle the diverse challenges of rural law practice. For example, Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, made a presentation to them in August about congressionally mandated federal funding of legal services and how such funds get distributed in each jurisdiction.
Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Garry, Appellate Division, Third Department, also offered what Perlman described as "inspiring remarks about serving rural communities and the great value it brings in preserving the beauty and quality of life in rural places."
Additional experts from around the state are expected to present to the task force in the coming months.
Rural Law Survey
Last April, the Government Law Center at Albany Law School published a report on rural law practice in New York, which was based on a survey of rural attorneys conducted between August and October 2018.
One of the more alarming findings from the survey confirmed the aging of the bar in rural New York, as nearly 75% of the attorneys were 45 years of age or older. With few to no new attorneys entering rural practice, this suggests that within 20 to 30 years, the great majority of current rural lawyers will be retired.
The research revealed other trends including:
• Most rural legal practices are comprised of solo practitioners or small practices of two to five attorneys.
• Many rural attorneys are overwhelmed by the volume of cases, financial stress, and limited resources, among many other rural practice burdens.
• Rural practitioners have trouble finding qualified attorneys to refer cases to and several high-needs practice areas have a shortage of experts.
• Rural practice involves unique challenges, including due process issues related to non-attorney judges, inefficiencies in town justice courts, a lack of access to broadband, and a prevalence of indigent clients.
In the survey, rural lawyers claimed that the prevalence of indigent clients leaves many of them torn between turning clients away who are desperate for their help - or assisting but being forced to work nights and weekends at the risk of their own financial hardship. Lawyers and their clients are also forced to travel greater distances to meet or to attend court hearings.
Several high-needs practice areas have a shortage of experts and 40% of the surveyed lawyers said they couldn't refer someone to another lawyer because there were either none with the appropriate expertise or the client would be unable to afford the attorney's fees.
The report provided many interesting quotes from the survey-takers to illustrate the problems.
"I get more intake calls than I can return. We have a serious shortage of attorneys in my area," wrote one lawyer.
"I have only taken one day off, including weekends, all year. Tough to find office help, and I'm overworked," said another.
Despite the concerns expressed by the rural lawyers in the survey, many still felt good about serving their communities.
"The population I serve is disadvantaged and truly needs my help and the services I provide," a rural lawyer responded. "I get to know my clients personally. Rather than working for a large firm in an urban setting where clients might represent mere billable hours, I really get to know my clients and understand their needs and can better serve them."
Many commented on the prevalence of indigent clients and the financial stress it causes their practice.
"My client base is often below the poverty level, so payment is a challenge," wrote one lawyer. "Operating a contemporary solo practice with necessary technology, infrastructure and compliance is difficult with my economic client base. I am tethered to my practice. I work through my weekends, work through my vacations, there is no fallback."
Also, many survey respondents said retirement wasn't even an option.
"I am the only lawyer handling complex business transactions," a lawyer wrote. "I am 69 years old and cannot retire because too many people rely on me."
Many others in various rural areas across the state commented on the shortage of their fellow lawyers.
"We are running out of lawyers! Something needs to be done to attract young attorneys to the rural areas," said one lawyer. "Our county is literally running out of lawyers."
For more information, please visit www.nysba.org/ruraljustice.
Broadband: 'A Civil Right'
At the American Bar Association's August House of Delegates meeting in San Francisco, Calif., NYSBA President Hank Greenberg spoke in support of a resolution urging Congress and state, local, territorial, and tribal legislatures to enact legislation and appropriate adequate funding to ensure equal access to justice for Americans living in rural communities by assuring proper broadband access is provided throughout the United States.
Greenberg said, "In the year 2019, broadband access should be a civil right. Internet access is an indispensable element to closing the justice gap in rural areas in New York and across the nation."
The ABA subsequently adopted the resolution that Greenberg spoke in support of. Greenberg's remarks came on the heels of NYSBA's July announcement creating the Task Force on Rural Justice.