Future Law

The Disappearing Rural Lawyer, Part II

rural lawyerLast year, I wrote about the disappearing rural lawyer. In Illinois, more lawyers are hanging their law firm shingle in urban areas. This isn’t just an Illinois trend, it’s happening across the U.S. For instance, in Illinois, roughly 7,000 lawyers across 95 counties outside of Chicagoland serve 35% of the state’s population, or approximately 4.5 million people. This breaks down to a 1:700 lawyer-resident ratio.

In The Disappearing Rural Lawyer part I, I examined initiatives that are addressing access to justice concerns in rural America. In Part II, I analyze broad systematic opportunities that the profession could embrace to better serve those in rural areas (and beyond). In doing so, you may find that the solution lies in the delivery, not the demographics. But first, I’ll lay out the problem.

The Urbanization of the Globe

Globally, more people reside in urban areas than in rural areas. In 2018, 55% of the world’s population lived in an urban area, according to the United Nations. And this distribution is growing. Projections put 68% of the world’s population in urban areas by 2050. In North America, the most urbanized region in the world, 82% of the population lived in an urban area in 2018. This comes as no shock.

In Illinois, the urbanization trend is comparable to the global model. The migration to urban areas of Illinois has grown by over 30 percent in the past century (reaching 88.5% in 2010). As the trend continues, it’s no surprise that shifts in the supply of business services geographically follow the demand.

graph showing percentage of IL residents living in urban area increasing over time

source: U.S. Census Bureau 


My previous rural lawyer post looked at where Illinois’ newer attorneys are practicing. To review, the data from a 2017 report by the Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) showed 52 counties admitted fewer than five new attorneys in the last five years and 16 counties admitted none.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to survey the most recent data, including the November 2019 class of admitted Illinois attorneys. What I found was even bleaker: 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.

Chicago continues to be the epicenter of newly admitted attorneys, as well as the lawyer population overall. Ninety percent of attorneys who were admitted in the last four years reside in Cook County, which includes Chicago, or a neighboring county (Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage, or Will County). That leaves less than 700 new lawyers across 96 counties statewide. These 96 counties are home to 4.5 million people and over 54,000 square miles.

Now that I’ve laid out the problem, let’s analyze the systematic opportunities that the profession could embrace to serve those in rural areas (and beyond).

Leveraging Remote Access

Standardized forms

In most courts, the number of self-represented litigants (SRLs) is growing at a steady pace. At the joint Illinois State Bar Association / Illinois Judges Association MidYear Meeting in December 2019, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis reiterated the startling fact that 93 of the 102 counties in Illinois reported that more than 50% of their civil cases had at least one SRL. In some case types, that number rose as high as 80%.

These SRLs may take advantage of a few, sporadic in-person legal help desks, but most turn to online resources to guide their journey. Since the majority of Americans (81% in 2019) owns a smartphone, the continued development of online tools with mobile interface is essential to promoting access to justice. Not only should the public be able to easily track a court case, but communication with the court must also be easily understood (in lay terms) and streamlined from case preparation to filing to hearings and trials.

For example, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) offers a self-guided tool that helps users understand and prepare the appropriate documents for an Order of Protection. The user answers simple questions to complete the needed court forms (as established by the Illinois Courts Standardized State Forms). Importantly, the forms are consistent for court cases across the state. This program brings access and convenience to the public while avoiding filing mistakes and delayed justice.

Remote video access

The barriers of distance and travel can be mitigated through remote video access. Like the smartphone, video conferencing can be a significant access to justice tool and a cost-saver for the court and involved parties. I can recall driving several hours for court hearings that could have been resolved in minutes through a video or telephone court appearance, with no less justice served.

More and more, courts and judges are permitting video conferencing for hearings as well as testimony from otherwise unavailable witnesses. Likewise, the quality and ease of video conferencing has improved in conjunction with more reliable Wi-Fi and cellular connections, and improved audio/video tools (built-ins or peripherals).

Take, for example, the use of video conferencing to conduct criminal arraignments between the courtroom and the county jail. Efficiencies are found in the ease and pace of judge-to-defendant interactions, as well as in reducing the distractions and risks of physically transporting defendants between the jail and courthouse.

Another example of this ongoing initiative is a new Remote Video Pilot program by the Illinois Supreme Court’s ATJ Commission and the Circuit Court of Cook County. The program will allow individuals to appear for cases remotely in three different divisions of the Cook County Circuit Courts. Once the courts have the proper tools and procedures in place, there’s no reason why other criminal and civil matters couldn’t be addressed through remote access.

For lawyers, delivering the untethered access that consumers demand means learning (and re-learning) how to do business. This new type of business can be conducted on a smartphone, in a virtual office, through social media platforms, and so on. As states continue to bridge the great “digital divide” in rural areas, broadband (and soon 5G) will boost accessibility and ease-of-use for all. Overall, rural lawyers who expand their service area through technology and modern means can boost their marketability and county-line cred.

Evaluating Your Business Model

Sure, expanding your service area can result in greater market exposure. However, that exposure falls flat if the consumer isn’t presented with the right product. Resolving a matter or solving a problem – the essence of what lawyers are employed to do – might be done adequately with self-help or done better with the help of a lawyer. The question quickly evolves into how we might we reshape the delivery of legal services to convert the consumer (who’d otherwise be an SRL) into a client. And, in doing so, create a more equitable, efficient, and effective result for all.

Reader comments on part I of The Disappearing Rural Lawyer drove home a theme: “People aren’t not hiring lawyers because they can’t find them… they aren’t hiring lawyers because they can’t afford them.” So, what are we doing to communicate our value? How are we changing the client experience – how clients find, retain, interact, etc. with lawyers – to make engaging us worthwhile?

Finding and engaging with a lawyer is rarely straightforward, even when representation is performed simply and affordably. Therefore, it’s no surprise that consumers are going elsewhere to address their needs. They’re turning to new forms of legal service providers or even doing it themselves.

While going it alone may be the new normal, a client-centered law firm delivering quality representation and a positive experience can thrive. And it starts with consumers, whether individuals or businesses, wanting predictability in their legal costs and outcomes.

For decades, the billable hour has proved to be a stable business model for measuring attorney output and profitability. More legal work for more hours meant better profit margins. Then, technological progress made legal research and drafting more efficient. Document review and production could be done in far less time and with far more accuracy. Law firms were forced to evolve processes, but the billable hour hung on. At least until clients realized that quality representation and experience isn’t measured by the hour.

If the law firm product is no longer marketable by default, then reevaluate the business model and deliver a new product that’s affordable and in demand. Alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) and limited scope representation are examples of viable business tools that provide consumers with options they don’t just want, they expect. Sure, these alternative models aren’t appropriate in some legal matters and may be ethical traps for the unwary. However, considering them may remove barriers to client engagement and the delivery of justice.

Shifting Focus

What’s disappearing faster, the rural lawyer or accessible legal services? If the legal industry has become more commoditized, how can we maintain the relevance of our profession? Have we paved our own road to more SRLs?

Demographics will always impact how a market behaves. Maybe we should focus our energies on examining client experience and the value we’re delivering instead of focusing on the lawyer count per county. By assessing the how instead of (just) the how many, we can offer the public a more accessible and affordable system of justice.

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