Editor’s Note: This article coincides with the Texas Bar Journal’s feature story on law practices in small towns and rural communities, published in the July 2015 issue.
Statistics on Texas lawyers reveal some interesting trends of the dispersal of the legal workforce. The state has a ratio of one attorney for every 312 citizens, and metropolitan areas have a ratio of 1:288, which is similar to the national attorney-population ratio of 1:252. But in rural areas, the ratio becomes 1:896.
These numbers raise the question of whether Texas attorneys are disproportionately concentrated in the cities. As of 2013—the most recent year for which the state bar has data—83 percent of all active, in-state attorneys were located in the four largest metropolises (the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio metropolitan statistical areas).
While approximately 11 percent of the state’s population resided in rural areas, only 4 percent of active, in-state attorneys practiced in these places. And some rural counties had exceptionally high attorney-population ratios, such as 1:2,431 in Zavala County, southwest of San Antonio, where the median household income was $25,291 (compared with the state average of $51,714) and 42 percent of the 12,000 residents lived below the poverty line. Eight Texas counties had no attorneys whatsoever, 67 counties had five or fewer, and nearly half of the state’s 254 counties had attorney-population ratios of 1:1,000 or higher.
Some say these statistics don’t give a complete picture of the situation because a portion of the attorneys in metro locations represents businesses and corporations. Also, while the concentration of attorneys in rural Texas is low, many counties are not as isolated as counties in largely rural states like South Dakota and Nebraska.
Even when rural residents have access to an attorney or a metropolitan area that is a feasible driving distance, they typically have less money to spend on attorneys’ fees. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that the median household income in rural areas of Texas is $42,499 (compared with $52,198 of metro areas and $51,714 statewide) and that rural Texas has a poverty rate of 20.1 percent (compared with the urban poverty rate of 17.2 percent and statewide rate of 17.5). Because strained finances can increase the need for legal aid lawyers as well as attorneys doing pro bono work, the State Bar of Texas and the Texas Access to Justice Commission support groups offering such services around the state. (Stay tuned for a blog on rural-focused pro bono and legal aid efforts.)
The majority of small-town lawyers work as solos or in firms of two to five, and the State Bar serves this segment of its membership through the General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Section, as well as its Local Bar Services and Law Practice Management committees, the latter of which provides resources such as the Ten Minute Mentor video series and brochures on starting, maintaining, and growing a practice.
Before the Internet made continuing legal education easily accessible online, TexasBarCLE traveled the state with large video projectors to play recorded programs for lawyers in smaller cities and rural areas. Now the department offers its DVD CLE program that enables local bars to show remotely located lawyers the same full-length CLE shown in major cities. And the Online Classroom allows lawyers anywhere 24/7 desktop and mobile device access to CLE, including streamed classes and downloadable PowerPoint slides, written materials, and audio files.
The Texas Young Lawyers Association, meanwhile, offers its Office in a Flash online toolkit to guide attorneys—rural or urban—in starting their own practice. It also recently implemented the Interns Across Texas project that facilitates law student clerkships throughout the state, with the hope that some positions will turn into paying jobs and that candidates will consider taking positions in small towns.
Rebekah Steely Brooker, the immediate past president of TYLA, set out to create Interns Across Texas partly to encourage law students and young lawyers—who are entering a very competitive job market—to broaden their horizons beyond the big city. “At this stage of the game,” Brooker said, “I think it’s important that they know there are options. But sometimes the most rewarding experiences are in unexpected locations.”
Several states with rural lawyer shortages have initiatives that aim to address the issue. The Vermont Bar Association, for example, has a project that offers paid malpractice insurance as well as online mentoring and CLE to three lawyers of new small-town firms. In return, the participants must develop a business plan and take part in regular calls with an advisory committee.
The New Hampshire Bar Association is rolling out a project where mentors show interested attorneys around local courts and develop a road map of best practices for hanging out their own shingle in a rural area. Several other state bars, including Maine, Iowa, Nebraska, and North Dakota (with funding from its supreme court), are doing clerkship programs focused on placing law students in remote locations.
The State Bar of South Dakota took it a step further when, in 2013, it started a program to pay qualifying lawyers $12,513 a year for five years if they would commit to residing and practicing in a county of no more than 10,000 for that time period. South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson had been stressing the rural attorney shortage in his annual State of the Judiciary speech before the Legislature. Eventually legislation was passed, largely due to its requiring the state to fund 50 percent of the project, with participating counties funding 35 percent and the bar’s foundation funding 15 percent.
The program has so far resulted in 11 contracts for lawyers setting up shop in 10 rural counties and has received national attention, including an in-depth article in the New York Times. Most participants are from South Dakota, although there have been several from out of state, including one from Texas. According to Suzanne Kappes, director of policy and legal services at the State Court Administrator’s Office, because the program has been so successful, the Legislature approved funding for an additional 16 contracts to begin in July 2015. For more information, go to ujs.sd.gov/Information/rarprogram.aspx and sdrurallawyer.com.
Nebraska’s Legislature passed a similar loan repayment act in 2008 for attorneys going into public interest law, but the program never received funding. So in 2014, Sen. Danielle Conrad proposed an amendment that would also encompass attorneys going into rural practice and stipulated that $500,000 in funding come from the state’s Uniform Commercial Code Cash Fund and $150,000 a year for three years be appropriated by the state’s budget. Sen. Conrad’s bill passed with no opposition.
Applicants who make a three-year commitment to practice in any Nebraska county with a population of fewer than 15,000 will receive up to $6,000 for three years (and possibly for as many as seven years, depending on funds). The program has received 32 applications, with an average applicant indebtedness of $90,000 and average salary of $48,500. “That clearly shows the need for such assistance,” said Jim Mowbray, chief counsel to the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy. Twenty-eight applicants met all qualifications and were awarded $4,600 each in January 2015.
For more information and additional articles on rural and small-town pro bono opportunities, State Bar resources, attorney profiles, and Texas law school efforts, go to texasbar.com/smalltown.