Pro Bono News

Wanted: Lawyers for Rural America

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Wanted: Lawyers for Rural America

"After an early career modeling in Los Angeles and New York City, Furonda Brasfield returned home to pursue her passion: practicing law in rural Arkansas.

Brasfield had graduated from high school in 1999 in Stuttgart, a town of 7.2 square miles known for its fertile soil, good for growing rice, and the migratory ducks that draw serious hunters. She left the state to become a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” returned to attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and left again to pursue her modeling career. But her legal ambitions, rooted in memories of growing up during the war on drugs, pulled her back.

“Every summer there would be a wave of mostly African American men who were taken from the community,” Brasfield, 38, recalled in a recent interview. “And then there would be a new group trying to reintegrate [from prison] into the community, most of the time unsuccessfully.”

With the support of a program encouraging more lawyers to practice in Arkansas’ underserved areas, Brasfield finished law school in 2015 and went on to do her part to fill a national shortage of attorneys in rural America.

National data on the legal profession can mask the problem: Overall, the population of lawyers increased by 14.5% since 2009, according to a 10-year survey from the American Bar Association. Only Alaska and Massachusetts saw modest declines.

But there is no national repository on the number of lawyers in each county, according to ABA communications manager Marc Davis. The association did not make anyone available to discuss the shortage of attorneys in rural America. According to a 2014 study in the South Dakota Law Review, about 2% of small law practices are in small towns and rural areas. (Around a fifth of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

State-level data from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin and several Plains states underscores that lawyers cluster in urban areas. Their disproportionate coverage creates “legal deserts” or patches of the state with few, if any, lawyers in private practice. Meanwhile, many of the existing rural lawyers are approaching retirement age, with too few law school graduates moving in to replace them.

Legal deserts disproportionately affect rural and especially poor people, who may have to travel hundreds of miles, or experience lengthy and expensive delays for routine legal work. Lawyers often handle complicated cases, but also standard fare such as divorces, contract disputes and eviction threats. With limited access to legal representation, vulnerable populations may be exploited by those in positions of power..."

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