The Illinois State Bar Association is addressing Illinois’ rural lawyer shortage with the launch of the new Rural Practice Fellowship Program. The program is designed to connect rural and small-town law firms with law students and newer attorneys interested in practicing outside of urban areas.
The disappearance of rural lawyers in Illinois has been well–documented. According to the ISBA, more than half of Illinois counties have fewer than 0.7 lawyers in private practice per 1,000 residents. Moreover, increased job opportunities and high student loan debt has led many young lawyers to practices in higher-paying urban areas, forcing rural residents to travel long distances to seek legal help.
Data, including the November 2019 class of admitted Illinois attorneys, show these “legal deserts” are worsening: 76 Illinois counties have five or fewer new attorneys (or those who were admitted in the last four years) and one-third of Illinois counties (39) don’t have any new attorneys.
Opportunities for Lawyers and Firms
To identify and support rural lawyers in Illinois, in June 2020, ISBA President Dennis Orsey created the ISBA Special Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative. In December 2020, the ISBA Board of Governors voted unanimously to make the initiative a permanent standing committee.
The initiative recently launched two fellowship programs aimed at supporting attorneys in exploring rural practice.
- The Rural Practice Summer Fellows program connects law students with rural practitioners before they leave law school. The program includes a $5,000 fellowship grant.
- The Rural Practice Associate Fellows program places graduating law students and new attorneys as permanent associates with rural practitioners. The program includes a $5,000 stipend at the beginning of employment and an additional $5,000 stipend if the associate is still working for the same firm after one year.
“I look at this as part of succession planning,” Orsey said in a video statement. “We know in a number of the counties in the state of Illinois we have an aging lawyer population. A number of these practicing attorneys have good viable practices; they have a built-in client base. What they’re looking for are young attorneys who are willing to settle in that rural community and eventually take over their practices.”
Fellows will participate in mentorship programs geared specifically toward law students and young attorneys in rural practice. Participants will also obtain CLE in connection with the program and be provided with opportunities to network with the local legal and business community.
Employers will receive assistance in identifying and hiring qualified summer clerks and associates and subsidized salaries that can help firms attract employees.
Applications for fellows and employer firms can be found on the ISBA’s website. The deadline for submission is February 12, 2021.
Attracting Lawyers to Rural Practice
Illinois isn’t the only state advancing initiatives aimed at filling the rural access to justice gap. “I turn away work, that’s the reality,” said Dustin Clark, an attorney in Rushville, Ill., in a video interview. “I need somebody, and I know I’m not the only rural and small practitioner who’s in that position.”
Drake Law School’s Rural Access to Justice Initiative offers a stipend for law students completing summer clerkships in rural or small practices. The William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas administers a Rural Practice Incubator that provides alumni attorneys with training, resources, and mentoring in building a career as a rural lawyer. And in South Dakota, the legislature approved a Recruitment Assistance Pilot Program to address the urgent shortage of rural lawyers practicing in the state.
“It’s great practicing in a rural area,” said Letitia Wiggins, an attorney in McLeansboro, Ill., in a video interview. “You can cover as many counties as you want, you can work on the types of cases that you want to work on, and ultimately you’re in control to shape that.”
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