Small businesses and small towns: Providing legal services to rural communities


Small law firms

Ethan Peppernis

On June 20, 2023 at 2:48 PM

Access to legal services has always been much lower in rural areas of the country, according to the organization’s 2020 report. American Bar Associationwhere “40% of all counties and equivalents in the United States” have less than one attorney per 1,000 residents.

Low-income rural communities have been particularly hard hit.

According to the latest Justice gap report From the Legal Services Foundation, the 8 million individuals living below 125% of the federal poverty line in rural areas especially need access to legal services, with 77% of low-income households experiencing at least one civil legal problem in the past year. year.

However, this trend should not continue.

New and existing small rural businesses that embrace technology, build personal relationships with clients, and nurture lawyers who are members of their communities are uniquely positioned to help increase access to legal services in areas where they are most needed.

To maintain access to legal services in rural areas, remaining businesses must look to the future and formulate business strategies that benefit the businesses and communities they serve.

Leverage technology to boost your efficiency and reach

Perhaps the most obvious challenge for attorneys working in rural communities is the physical distance between courtrooms, individuals with legal needs, and the attorneys themselves.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the legal system to quickly adapt to remote attorneys, that barrier was weakened, according to Raymond Brescia, a professor at Albany Law School who published an article on the intersection of technology and access to justice.

“It (the pandemic) taught us that it can be done, that it can provide a modicum of access to justice through technology that people were afraid to try before,” he says.

Brescia adds that appearing in court via video call has allowed many lawyers, both rural and urban, to appear in multiple jurisdictions without having to worry about travel hours.

For small businesses operating in rural communities, the efficiencies gained through technology allow lawyers at those firms to be more flexible in how they work, according to Brescia, which in turn increases their ability to give back to society through pro bono or rate-adjusted work.

He adds that reliance on technology as the primary driver for increasing access to legal services comes with some limitations and risks, some of which relate to the deeper systemic issue of proper access to the Internet.

(Challenges with infrastructure, availability of services, and high prices are common problems rural communities face when it comes to accessing the Internet, NPR reports.)

Other risks include cybersecurity issues and the potential lack of privacy for individuals who use public places such as libraries to access the Internet, where they may not receive the same level of confidentiality as they would in a lawyer’s office.

Partner with a bar association or nonprofit organization

For older attorneys who currently operate a small firm in a rural community, networking with a state bar can provide mentoring opportunities for young attorneys, according to Nicole Killoran, a professor at Vermont Law School whose work focuses on access to justice in rural areas and preparing attorneys. Coming to successful careers.

“There is a lot of interest in the elderly bar to mentor the younger ones,” Killoran says, adding that these young apprentices could be in a position to take over an established practice when the previous owners retire.

Refers to the Vermont Bar Association Extension programme Similar programs in other states are examples of how bar associations can facilitate contacts between new and experienced attorneys.

Legal aid organizations such as Equal Justice Works, which runs an annual program called Rural Summer Legal Corps (RSLC), are also creating ways for law students to begin building a career focused on disadvantaged areas.

Many law students who participate in RSLC go on to continue working in rural communities after graduation, according to Brock Maker, who has directed RSLC for the past five years.

Some of those students, she adds, go back to the same companies that hosted their RSLC jobs.

The good news, according to Maker, is that there are a lot of law students who enter the industry with the goal of working with access to justice and in rural communities.

“I think students who go to law school with a passion and dedication to service typically start early in their careers by looking for paralegal positions and seeking fellowships that focus on these areas,” says Meckler.

“Giving students paid work experience in legal aid and public service really encourages them to stay and continue this career after they leave law school.”

For small, rural firms, these annual cohorts of new public service-trained attorneys can be prime targets for recruitment and mentorship.

If not service, then education

Another barrier that prevents low-income individuals in particular from accessing legal services, regardless of their geographic location, is a lack of confidence in the legal system’s ability to work for them, according to the Legal Services Foundation.

For small law firms, educational activities that promote access to justice can easily be integrated into existing popular marketing strategies such as blogging and conducting webinars.

By educating their communities and positioning themselves as trustworthy and familiar community leaders, rural attorneys can increase individuals’ comfort with the legal system while advertising their own services to those who can pay.

While many of the programs Killoran is involved in offer legal advice, she says that a basic legal education is also a large part of the work she does in terms of increasing access to legal services in rural areas.

For example, programs such as the Vermont Law School Entrepreneurship Legal Laboratory It can provide the essential knowledge that allows business owners to protect their businesses and “be more responsible citizens,” according to Killoran, who runs the program.

“Our goal with the program is basically to educate small business owners[so that]they understand more about the questions they’ll need to deal with and how to enter into a relationship with an attorney,” she says.

The Vermont Law School and the Vermont State Bar also collaborate on VBA/VLS Solo Lawyer Incubator Projectwhich aims to encourage “new and new attorneys in Vermont” to launch their own small or individual practice by providing educational and financial incentives.

“The conditions[for participating in an incubator]are precisely that they are willing to practice in a rural area or an area of ​​need, whether it’s a geographic area or a field of law,” says Killoran, who works as a consultant. to the project.

Ethan Peppernis is a Brooklyn-based writer covering legal technology and small law firms and is an in-house consultant for Above the Law. His coverage of legal events and the legal services industry has appeared in Law360, Bushwick Daily, and elsewhere.


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