The Overlooked Rural Pro Bono Deficit


Area of Law: 

The Great, Unfilled Need for Pro-Bono Representation in Rural Regions


Noah Kovacs has over twenty years experience in the legal field. He has since retired early and enjoys blogging about small business law, legal marketing, and everything in between. He recently purchased his first cabin and spends his free time remodeling its kitchen for his family. Twitter: @NoahKovacs

Whenever I think of pro bono work, the first image that comes to mind (having watched one too many movies featuring idealistic public defenders, I suppose) is that of an inner-city teenager or young man. He’s grown up in a rough neighborhood but done his best to avoid the “6 Ds” of street life, as I’ve just now decided to call them- Desolation, Dope, Drama, Destitution, Deprivation and Delinquency. Through no fault of his own (it’s always a “him” for whatever patriarchal reason) this youngster got arrested- maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, the need for pro bono representation for people in rural communities is just as dire as it is in the cities.

Arguably the need for rural pro bono counsel is even greater than its urban counterpart. According to the most recent Census, 459 of the 500 poorest counties in the country are rural. That’s a 5 to 1 margin of rural over urban poverty. 481 of the 500 counties with low per-capita income are rural as well. Often, the persistent poverty marker is a better indication of actual… persistent poverty, as opposed to a county that suffered a transient financial setback. Of the 386 counties rated as suffering from persisting poverty, 340 of them were rural.

If you noted the New York Times article on the surplus of lawyers state by state (all but two of them, Wisconsin and Nebraska, have surpluses) last year, you no doubt remember that New York urban areas were particularly over-lawyered. New York City had nearly 9800 bar-graduates and just 2100 openings in law positions.

public defender

That sort of saturation, while frustrating for job-seeking lawyers, can be good news for city-dwellers in need of defense. Obviously, rural regions have fewer lawyers with smaller (or nonexistent) support staff and much more space those fewer layers are compelled to cover. Rural regions are far less likely to have charities, defense commissions, justice-based NGOs, legal aid programs or a network of like-minded defenders working for the under-monied and under-helped.

Several contributing factors put those poor rural counties are at further risk of under-representation (pro bono or otherwise). Many of those risks are practical impediments ubiquitous to rural living, some you might never consider. With much wider coverage areas can hinder work with multi-district jurisdictional issues and registration requirements. Those considerable coverage area can prompt transportation problems for both an attorney and client. With fewer people available for representation and a correspondingly smaller pool requiring legal aid, the likelihood of a practicing attorney running into conflict of interest constraints is far greater.

Despite (or because of) my Catholic upbringing, I hate to saddle anyone with unnecessary guilt- if you’re doing pro bono work in the city or anywhere else, more power to you. However, if you have the time and resources, consider lending your attention to a rural community for those off the beaten path just as in need of help.

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