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In Illinois' growing legal deserts, finding a lawyer can be difficult - particularly in civil cases

The Woodford County Courthouse in Eureka, Ill.
Tim Shelley
Peoria Public Radio
The Woodford County Courthouse in Eureka, Ill.

With more than 66,000 attorneys registered to practice in Illinois living here, it might seem like there's plenty of legal representation to go around.

But that statistic masks a severe shortage of solo practitioners able to take on new individual clients, particularly in rural communities. Much like food deserts in areas underserved by grocery stores, some neighborhoods and towns are considered legal deserts. And like many food deserts, legal deserts are growing in size.

The American Bar Association says nationwide, there's about one lawyer for every 300 people in the country. But most attorneys practicing today represent corporations or businesses, not individual clients.

"The corner stores right on the main street where the lawyer takes any kind of case that happens to walk through the door and the prevalence of solo practitioners in the U.S. has shrunk considerably in the last 40 years," said Teri Ross, the executive director ofIllinois Legal Aid Online. "So it used to be that solo practitioners made up the majority of the legal profession. That's no longer the case."

Only 25 attorneys are registered to practice law in Woodford County, east of Peoria, per Illinois Legal Aid Online. Just 29 lawyers work in Fulton County, southwest of Peoria. The problem also surfaces in underserved urban areas.

In many legal deserts, Ross said there's often a race to get to the available attorneys first. Once an attorney has spoken to one party about their case, they're prohibited from talking to the other party about it - even if they're not ultimately hired to represent the first party.

The shortage is felt particularly in civil matters. Unlike a criminal case, there's no right to representation in a civil court case.

"An order of protection is heard in civil court. Eviction court is a civil court. So people being removed from their homes. Foreclosure is also a civil matter," said Ross. "So there's a lot of heavy, life changing issues that affects people in civil courts where they don't have a right to a lawyer."

Legal aid organizations are one salve to the problem - albeit an imperfect one given the high demand volume for services.

"It's a real challenge," said Denise Conklin, executive director ofPrairie State Legal Services. It is one of three publicly-funded legal aid organizations in Illinois.

The agency operates out of 11 offices, serving 36 counties in Northern and Central Illinois, including urbanized areas such as Peoria, McLean, Rock Island, Winnebago, and the collar counties. But it also includes very rural counties, like Stark, Henderson, and Marshall.

Conklin said part of the strategy involves just letting clients know legal aid organizations are out there.

"We really embrace community lawyering. So we have, in many of our offices, a community resource specialist, who's a non-attorney, that partners with different community agencies to outreach and make sure folks and community partners know that civil legal assistance exists," Conklin said.

Prairie State Legal Services operates primarily in the realms of domestic violence and family law, housing, public benefits like unemployment, and financial stability cases concerning areas like expungement of criminal records.

But Conklin said Prairie State is unable to meet the need for civil legal representation with its limited resources.

"We try to make access available for anyone with a need so that they can at least apply for services. But in many cases, we need to only provide advice, because we don't have the resources to provide full representation," she said.

Ross said that leaves many people relying upon self-representation to resolve their legal issues - or just ignoring the problem altogether.

"It can be very daunting for people. However, the good news is that there are some cases that are better suited for self representation," Ross said. "And the state courts have recognized the number of people coming to them unrepresented. (It) has resulted in them creating some additional services and help to provide to people who come into court by themselves wanting to have a say in the matter, whatever case it is."

For instance, courthouses in Peoria and Tazewell counties host legal self-help centers staffed by volunteers or law librarians. While self-help centers can't offer legal advice, they can help walk people through the court process.

Ross said Illinois Legal Aid Online also assists in this realm.

"It's really just one of the things that my organization does, is it takes that hefty high reading level statute that's written in the legislature, and distills it down into an actionable and understandable process and a series of steps and a guide," she said.

There's also technology which could simplify the legal process, similarly to how TurboTax simplifies filing tax returns, Ross said. Documents would be created automatically through a series of user prompts.

Still, Ross said there's still room for improvements to the legal aid process, such as recruiting a more diverse range of people into the legal profession, and adopting a medical-style model to re-prioritize who is spending time on what, based on the complexity or specialization required for the task.

"There's definitely a way for us to do a better job of triaging people, so that they're getting the right level of service. And if if we can do that in a better way, I think we'll all have better results, and more people will be able to participate in the legal system more effectively," Ross said.

Corrected: July 28, 2022 at 10:52 AM CDT
The original version of this article said there were more than 62,000 lawyers registered in Illinois. There are actually more than 95,000 registered in the sate; however, nearly 29,000 of those do not live here.
Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.