Just 2 percent of small law practices are in rural areas, where nearly a fifth of the country lives, recent data show.
“A hospital will not last long with no doctors, and a courthouse and judicial system with no lawyers faces the same grim future,” South Dakota’s chief justice, David E. Gilbertson, said. “We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services.”
In South Dakota, 65 percent of the lawyers live in four urban areas. In Georgia, 70 percent are in the Atlanta area. In Arizona, 94 percent are in the two largest counties, and in Texas, 83 percent are around Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Last summer, the American Bar Association called on federal, state and local governments to stem the decline of lawyers in rural areas.
Such moves follow a growing call for legal education to model itself on medical training to increase practical skills and employability. They also come amid intense debate on the future of the legal profession, and concerns about a possible glut of lawyers. In the past two years, only about 55 percent of law school graduates, many with large student loans to repay, have found full-time jobs as lawyers.
“In some areas we probably do have an oversupply of lawyers, but in others we have a chronic undersupply, and that problem is getting worse,” said David B. Wilkins, who directs a program on the legal profession at Harvard Law School. “In the 1970s, lawyers spent about half their time serving individuals and half on corporations. By the 1990s, it was two-thirds for corporations. So there has been a skewing toward urban business practice and neglect of many other legal needs.”
Data from LexisNexis showed that in 2012, firms with fewer than 50 lawyers were heavily concentrated in urban and suburban areas, with only 2 percent in rural regions.
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