SIDNEY, Neb. — A shortage of lawyers means a lack of justice.
Though in some areas the legal market is oversaturated, the number of qualified attorneys in rural areas is shrinking rapidly. Many counties are underserved at the moment, according to the Nebraska State Bar Association.
When there are few lawyers available, rural residents' access to justice is limited.
In some cases people must travel up to 200 miles to get legal help. In Nebraska there are 12 counties that have no lawyers at all.
According to the bar group there were 18 lawyers in Cheyenne County in 2012, four in Deuel County, two in Kimball County and none at all in Banner County.
When Tom Sonntag, attorney with Sonntag Goodwin & Leef, first came to Sidney in the 1970s, he worked as the Cheyenne County attorney, with no deputy attorney. At that point there also were 17 other attorneys in Sidney.
Sonntag now estimates there are 12 to 13 attorneys working in Sidney — three of those in the County Attorney's Offices.
That leaves fewer to do the rest of the work in the county than there were 40 years ago, when the population was roughly the same as it is now. Many people must travel to Scottsbluff or Ogallala to get legal help, Sonntag said.
“The work is here,” said Cheyenne County attorney Paul Schaub. “We're all loaded up with a lot of work to do.”
Defense and prosecuting attorneys in Cheyenne County all have their plates full at the moment, he added.
Schaub has seen this problem firsthand when recruiting deputy attorneys.
“It's not an easy process,” he said. “I've been fortunate with the deputies I've hired in the past.”
New graduates are less likely to take rural jobs because they pay less than city jobs, and that's a growing concern with rising student loan debt, the bar association said.
Sonntag thinks that this becomes an economic matter as well, because when people travel outside the county for legal aid, they might also do some shopping or pay for other services while in bigger cities.
“I don't see where that helps the community out when someone travels out of town to see a lawyer,” Sonntag said.
The benefits of practicing in a rural community are great, according to the bar association.
Those benefits include accelerated career advancement. The average length of time to reach partner in an urban firm is seven to 10 years, whereas it is four to five years in a rural area. The lower cost of living often offsets lower pay.
Sonntag said he loves working in Cheyenne County, but many people don't feel the same way. Cabela's or the hospital might recruit a husband and wife to work there, but it's harder to do that with lawyers, Sonntag said.
The bar association started a rural practice initiative this summer. The program educates second- and third-year law students about the benefits of practicing law in rural areas.
The initiative featured two two-day tours through Albion and Ord, which helped find jobs for two or three people, according to Marsha Fangmeyer, president of the bar association.
“The hope is to continue this effort in other areas of the state,” Fangmeyer said. “It is essential that we provide access to justice all across the state, including the rural areas.”
This problem is not limited to Nebraska. According to the New York Times, South Dakota recently passed a law offering lawyers an annual subsidy to live and work in rural areas. The Iowa and Kansas state bars also have programs encouraging lawyers to look for jobs outside of urban areas.
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