Here's how the Illinois State Bar Association works to bring lawyers to Illinois' 'legal deserts'
More than half of Illinois’ counties don’t even have one private lawyer per every 1,000 residents. In these legal deserts, it can be difficult or even impossible to find representation, particularly in civil matters.
Experts and advocates with the Illinois State Bar Association started a program to attack the problem.
Sarah Taylor is a private lawyer in the Carbondale area, but she also serves as the chair of the Standing Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative. In this role, Taylor helped develop and pilot the Rural Practice Fellowship.
It has two main components. The first is a program that matches up law students with practices in rural areas as law clerks. The second is an associate program, where those with law degrees and recent graduates can relocate to a rural area, make a match with a firm and agree to spend at least a year there.
“We're noticing that there has been really over the last decade or so diminishing numbers of lawyers in rural areas of Illinois,” said Taylor. “And I think our numbers, we did a little bit of looking at stats, and our numbers showed that as of the last couple of years, there's 13 counties in Illinois that have five or fewer private attorneys.”
"Our numbers showed that as of the last couple of year, there's 13 counties in Illinois that have five or fewer private attorneys."Sarah Taylor, Chair of the Standing Committee for the Rural Practice Initiative
One possible reason for this decline is a lack of young attorneys starting their career in rural areas. Taylor acknowledges this could be a symptom of misconceptions about the day to day work at a rural firm.
“For some folks there’s a perception that there’s not that many areas of law you practice in rural areas, but in reality there’s a lot,” she said. “Rural practices tend to be broader in the areas of law they do, you don’t see quite as many firms that just do one area.”
For this reason, most rural attorneys must take a Jack of All Trades approach. Estate planning, business planning, family law and all of the various legal needs of large farming operations are among just some of the common issues requiring an attorney’s assistance in rural areas.
“I know when I started I did a whole bunch of different things,” said Taylor. “Then over time I was able to narrow it down more to the things I wanted to focus on. But, it allowed me to learn how to be very flexible in learning something new. Which I think is really a good fit for some folks.”
It’s important that rural attorneys are multidiscipline, because there are real and immediate consequences for people that can’t find legal representation. Taylor says this can make life difficult not only for those individuals, but also private attorneys and the legal system at large.
“It could be that they are sued, or need to sue someone, they still have to travel quite a distance. Oftentimes, for me as a practitioner, if I want to refer someone who calls in some of those areas, because it’s hard for me to represent them from that far away, I don’t have anyone to refer them to. That’s really difficult for me,” said Taylor. “The other other issue is from what we call an ‘access to justice’ perspective. Basically, for folks that are on the lower income end of the spectrum, it can be completely prohibited for them.”
"Oftentimes, for me as a practitioner, if I want to refer someone who calls in some of those areas, because it’s hard for me to represent them from that far away, I don’t have anyone to refer them to."Sarah Taylor, Chair of the Standing Committee for the Rural Practice Initiative
Organizations like Land of Lincoln Legal Aid and Prairie State Legal Services can help individuals without the means to pay to find a lawyer. But lack of access also leads to a rise in clients relying on self-representation.
“The legal system can be very complex and confusing for people that are trying to represent themselves and stressful,” said Taylor. “From my perspective as a lawyer, actually, isn’t good for the legal system because it can slow things down. They don’t always get the justice that they need.”
The Rural Practice Initiative also aims to help fulfill some of the practical needs that rural practices have difficulty with.
Beyond helping law students get in touch with rural firms, the fellowship program also provides a $5,000 or $10,000 stipend to help with relocation. Taylor says this is designed to ease the burden of one other difference between rural and city firms: a drop off in pay.
“On the other hand, the cost of living is less,” said Taylor. “It’s a different kind of lifestyle obviously and it’s going to be a good fit for some folks and not for others.”
Another issue with attracting recent law school graduates to rural areas is a lack of opportunities for outreach and networking.
Brigette Lobacz is a partner at Moehle, Swearingen and Lobacz in Pekin, where she’s been practicing for 11 years.
“The ability to go out, recruit and meet law students face to face and say ‘would you like to come work for us’ is different than a small firm like us,” said Lobacz. “We just don’t have that capability, we don’t have the capacity to send a lawyer to a law school.”
However, Lobacz points out that rural communities provide a lot of unique opportunities for a legal professional just starting their career.
“When I started here, I think I sat in with my managing attorney for two or three client meetings and then she said ‘yep, you’re good’,” said Lobacz. “Cut me loose and said I could go and do that. So I was in the courtroom right away as well.”
Lobacz says that, while Tazewell County does not technically qualify as a legal desert, she submitted an application to the program, which is how they were matched up with law clerk Simone Freeney.
Freeney is a recent graduate of DePaul University awaiting the results of her BAR exam.
She says face to face meetings are a huge benefit, as opposed to past Chicago internships where business is conducted mostly over email.
“I appreciate that I get to work individually with people and directly with them,” said Freeney. “I know that it’s going to be impacting their lives. It’s not something they’re doing out of spite. This is something that’s really important to them.”
She does agree with Taylor that a lot of her recently-graduated classmates were likely to stay in cities because of the higher salaries there, especially while paying back heavy student debt.
“That’s part of the reason why people don’t want to leave the city. Or they’ll say: ‘okay, well I’ll work here for five years, pay off my student loans at the big salary. Then I’ll move to a small area where I can make a bigger impact,’” said Freeney. “I didn’t like that.”
But she says she has also experienced the wide range of legal needs present in Pekin. The majority of the firm's work is in real estate, but even those issues require knowledge of several fields of law.
“Then again, you also get other things because there’s not as many attorneys,” said Freeney. "So you have to take, or people have to ask attorneys that might not necessarily work in that practice area regularly, because there’s no one else.”
"People have to ask attorneys that might not necessarily work in that practice area regularly, because there’s no one else.”Simone Freeney, Rural Practice Initiative Associate Fellow
There was one other concern with the move to a rural area for Freeney. She’s Black, and her family lived in Pekin in the 1980’s. Her family warned her that her race may be an issue.
“They were like ‘Pekin may not be the best for you,’” she said. “I have been so, so surprised that I have not, like nobody pays me any mind. I think that’s the best thing you can ask for.”
Freeney says she’s impressed to see how attorneys like Pekin’s Valerie Moehle, one of the partners at the firm where Freeney is a clerk, are not only legal professionals, but community pillars too.
“Her dad started this practice with his brothers. But she is a community leader and everyone kind of knows her and they love her,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing to see that. That she grew up in this area and is now a pillar of this community. And is making a real impact not just in her law practice but in her everyday life.”
For Freeney, this personal aspect of rural law is a selling point and a compelling reason to take a chance on working in a different area.
“It’s that kind of thing that means a lot to people,” she said. “You can see an attorney and they’re not so different from you. They’re going to your church and they’re going to your events. It’s not separate. There’s no separate ‘attorneys are higher than people.’ That’s not the case and I actually really love that.”
Rory Weiler, the president of the Illinois State Bar Association, or ISBA, says that another benefit of this program is creating the next generation of those community leaders.
“Honestly, part of the rationale behind the program is to provide succession strategies to lawyers who have been practicing for a long time, maybe want to retire, or work a few more years. Then pass that practice along to his or her successor,” he said. “So, you know, it is important. It’s a win-win situation.”
Currently, the ISBA funds the program on its own.
“We’re spending about a quarter of a million dollars a year,” said Weiler. “And have committed to spend that money to get the program off the ground.”
This is only the second year of the program and the second class of fellows, so in these very early stages, Weiler says it can be difficult to measure the exact impact, but the current focus is continuing to expand.
“Expand it into legal deserts in our poor, underserved urban communities in the downstate area,” he said. “In Peoria, in Moline, Metro East, in so many of these larger communities, the same problems exist.”
However, for an unofficial measure of the program’s success right now, you can just ask Freeney about her experience so far.
“I definitely think this is a tremendous program,” she said. “If I had to summarize it, I would say: I would really lean into the fact that the experience I gained and have gained in the past couple months is by far better than and more worth it than any negative I could have thought of.”
A member of the second-ever class already has high praise for the Rural Practice Initiative's fellowship program. That may be a good sign for the initiative creating the next generation of rural lawyers.
Taylor says the next round of applications for the program are opening up in November. They will welcome the third round of Rural Practice Initiative fellows in February 2023. You can find more information about the Rural Practice Initiative and the issue of access to justice in Illinois on the ISBA website here.