Future Law

The Disappearing Rural Lawyer

rural lawyersIllinois’ rural lawyers are disappearing. The uneven distribution of practicing attorneys in the state is startling. Cook County represents 40% of the state’s population and over 70% of its lawyers. Cook County and its six collar counties account for 65% of the state’s population and 90% of its lawyers. That leaves 95 counties in Illinois with just 10% of its lawyers.

The lack of rural lawyers in Illinois is becoming more pronounced by the year, according to the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice. As the rural lawyer population throughout much of the state declines, locating legal aid is becoming increasingly difficult for citizens in need.

Shrinking Numbers Across America

The figure below in blue shows the distribution of the state’s 65,000 resident attorneys (30,000 registered Illinois attorneys live outside the state). When it comes to new attorneys (in pink), 52 counties admitted fewer than five new attorneys in the last five years. Sixteen counties admitted none.

The shrinking number of rural lawyers isn’t just a problem in Illinois. The main street attorney is an endangered species throughout rural America. The New York Times reported similar metropolitan saturation in a sampling of states: in South Dakota, 65% of the lawyers live in four cities; in Georgia, 70% are in greater Atlanta; in Arizona, 94% are in the two largest counties; and in Texas, 83% of attorneys are around Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.

According to a 2014 study in the South Dakota Law Review, while about 20% of our nation’s population lives in rural America, only 2% of our nation’s small law practices are in small towns and rural areas.

However, these numbers (including the Illinois numbers above) are overstated. The number of available private practitioners is fewer once you take into account non-public facing attorneys. These include government jobs in the state’s attorney’s office, public defender officers and the judiciary, as well as those working non-legal jobs or in-house positions, and those otherwise not available to serve the public’s legal needs.

“We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services. Large populated areas are becoming islands of justice in a rural sea of justice denied,” cautioned Chief Justice David E. Gilbertson of the South Dakota Supreme Court.

These disproportionately represented geographical areas create what have been called “legal deserts.” To make matters worse, the limited availability of legal assistance in legal deserts is combined with other barriers specific to rural settings, such as the need to travel vast distances for services, the lack of transportation options and often-inferior cellular and internet communications.

Going it Alone

This hardship is clearly reflected in the continuing rise of individuals seeking justice without counsel. In 2015, statistics from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) showed that 93 of the 102 counties in Illinois reported that more than 50% of their civil cases had at least one self-represented litigant (SRL). In some case types, that number rose as high as 80%. This was consistent in jurisdictions from all four corners of Illinois.

These startling numbers mirror similar trends nationally, where an estimated 3 out of 5 people in civil cases go to court without a lawyer. In urban, suburban and rural communities, more SRLs are attempting to solve legal problems in courthouses without professional counsel.

According to the Self-Represented Legal Network, civil legal disputes across the U.S. are handled in more than 15,000 courts, resulting in a patchwork of jurisdictions among state, county and municipal authorities. An estimated 46 million people are appearing in court, handling cases involving divorce, custody, child support, guardianship, housing and consumer disputes. These courts consistently report through sampling that 75% or more of these cases have at least one SRL. See NCSC’s 2015 Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts.

Finding Solutions to this Lawyer Community Problem

Legal isn’t the only profession experiencing the ramifications of America’s shifting demographics. Our population is moving to urban areas, often following more jobs with better salaries and more of life’s comforts. Nevertheless, bar associations and law schools are among those attempting to address this access to justice void.

Here’s a survey of some initiatives addressing this problem, specifically as faced in rural areas:


The Rural Practice Incubator Project is an 18-month program at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

  • The pilot program, funded by the attorney general’s office and donations, provides continuing education programs, introduces participants to rural lawyers, and offers training and resources on how to run an office. Most participants have set up solo legal practices.
  • The program (started in late 2018) supports incubator attorneys with training, resources, mentoring and guidance to assist them in building their professional careers as rural attorneys.
  • Incubator attorneys are encouraged to implement innovative legal service delivery models to increase access to justice for low- and moderate-income rural Arkansans. Each participant will provide a minimum of 100 hours of pro bono or low bono legal services during the program.


The Self-Represented Litigant Assistance Program is a courthouse-based provider of free legal and procedural information, referrals and court forms, and written information.

  • The Colorado judicial branch created self-represented litigant coordinators (“Sherlocks”) who operate in courthouses in each of Colorado’s judicial districts. Sherlocks assist litigants with information on court procedures and with forms and resources offered by the court and outside organizations.
  • Sherlocks may be attorneys or court staff operating under a statewide Sherlock coordinator. This coordinator works closely with each individual program to ensure consistency throughout the state and to share resources across districts.

South Dakota

The Project Rural Practice (PRP) is enacted legislation to recruit lawyers to rural areas.

  • PRP started with 16 lawyers and has grown to 24. Lawyers earn about $13,000 a year on top of their salary to practice in eligible counties with a demonstrated need and less than 10,000 residents.
  • The state pays half of the cost of the program. Local government pays 35% and the South Dakota Bar Foundation covers the rest.

PRP doesn’t rely only on the participating attorneys and the state bar to address the dearth of rural lawyers. The program is a collaborative effort involving multiple organizations at the state, county and local levels, including schools and charitable organizations. The State Bar of South Dakota emphasizes that this multi-disciplinary approach will continue to bring stakeholders together, spotlighting their respective interests in the issue and identifying enlightened solutions.


Another consideration often examined in the access to justice conversation is allowing paraprofessionals to assist on legal matters. Two states have already created models that establish licenses for trained legal practitioners who aren’t licensed attorneys to give legal advice limited in type and scope.

Since 2012, Washington has authorized Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs) on certain matters in the area of family law. In 2019, Utah launched a similar paraprofessional, called Licensed Paralegal Practitioners (LPPs), in designated areas of law.

Several other states are exploring the possibility of instituting programs that would permit those without a law license to provide certain legal services. For example, Minnesota established an implementation committee to make recommendations before March 2020 for its Legal Paraprofessional Pilot Project. Likewise, the Colorado Supreme Court may follow Washington with LLLTs to assist tenants in eviction cases.

Innovations and Regulations

Several states are examining how modifications to ethics rules could promote innovation in the delivery of legal services and contribute to access to justice solutions, including in rural America. California, Arizona and Utah have task forces examining how rule changes could impact the delivery of legal services while best protecting the consumer.

Supporting Rural Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission pays special attention to the unique needs of suburban and rural communities. Specifically, it’s continuing efforts to support and simplify the use of remote technology to connect attorneys interpreters and litigants with the court system in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

Here are a few ways that rural Illinoisans can connect with legal assistance:

Illinois Legal Aid Organizations

While the resources may not match those of their urban counterparts, Illinois citizens living in suburban and rural areas can find free legal advice across the state. In Chicago and suburban Cook County, Legal Aid Chicago (formerly LAF) provides free legal services for qualified individuals in the Chicago area.

Those living outside of Chicago may find help from either Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS) or Land of Lincoln Legal Aid (LOLLA). Prairie State serves central and northern Illinois, while Land of Lincoln serves central and southern Illinois.

Legal Aid Chicago serves Cook County (green)

Prairie State Legal Services serves the north half of Illinois (white)

Land of Lincoln Legal Aid serves the south half of Illinois (teal)

PSLS and LOLLA reach across many Illinois counties to provide access to justice for low income persons and those age 60 and over. PSLS has 12 office locations serving 36 counties in northern Illinois, while LOLLA has six offices across 65 counties in central and southern Illinois.

These legal aid providers offer an access to the justice system for clients facing eviction and foreclosure, domestic violence, termination of vital benefits, and other threats to the health and safety of themselves and their families.

Nevertheless, these legal aid opportunities are too limited in size and scope to address the demand. Especially the demand around issues like homelessness, domestic violence and the loss of benefits that help people meet basic needs. There just aren’t enough legal aid attorneys to service 102 counties across Illinois.

When individuals don’t qualify for help or these organizations otherwise cannot help them, alternative resources may be available. These include free attorney consultations, court help desks and self-help options to serve their needs or guide them to other solutions.

JusticeCorps and SRL Coordinators

Illinois JusticeCorps is an innovative AmeriCorps program that places college students, recent graduates and other volunteers in courthouses to help the growing number of SRLs. Volunteers assist litigants and other court patrons in 13 courthouses throughout Illinois. The program is made possible by AmeriCorps funding from the Serve Illinois Commission and the Corporation on National and Community Service. Additional support is provided by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, the Illinois Bar Foundation (which oversees the program) and The Chicago Bar Foundation.

In addition to the Illinois JusticeCorps, rural residents can find legal support from a statewide network of SRL coordinators who are based in courthouses. Launched in 2017, the Commission on Access to Justice and AOIC established the network of court personnel to work collaboratively to identify new strategies for improving access to justice. Over 40,000 self-represented individuals received help from the coordinators in the first year and a half of the program.

In an effort to further expand legal assistance in Illinois, the Commission on Access to Justice and the AOIC issued a request for proposals for more SRL coordinators.

Legal Answers via PILI

The Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) recently took over the operations of the Free Legal Answers program in Illinois. Prior to PILI, Illinois Legal Aid Online oversaw the project.

Originally an American Bar Association project, Free Legal Answers is a secure website where lower-income Illinois residents can ask a lawyer for help with a legal issue. Think: an online Q&A message board for legal questions answered by volunteer lawyers.

Qualified users post questions about civil legal problems. Volunteer lawyers then log onto the site and select questions to answer. Since its 2017 launch, volunteer lawyers have answered 3,435 questions through the website.

Limited Scope Representation

Limited-scope legal representation by attorneys can make legal services more affordable and accessible. Attorneys may unbundle their services – whether it’s drafting a plea or motion or representing a client in court.

Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct 1.2 allows lawyers to “limit the scope of representation if the limitation is reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.” Examples of limited scope representation includes coaching self-represented litigants, providing limited legal advice, drafting and reviewing documents, gathering and preparing evidence, and even appearing in court for a portion of a case.

The Commission on Access to Justice, together with The Chicago Bar Association and Foundation, the Lawyers Trust Fund and the Justice Entrepreneurs Project, released a limited scope representation toolkit. The toolkit provides resources for attorneys interested in offering limited scope legal representation.

The Essentiality of Rural Lawyers

Assuring that main streets across the Land of Lincoln include a law practice isn’t just an access to justice issue. It’s not limited to delivering legal services or assuring justice in rural Illinois. The decline of the rural lawyer population can impact the overall quality of life for all Illinois citizens, from the health of local economies to the functionality of government entities.

Bar associations, law schools, legal aid organizations and the courts must support efficient and novel solutions to address this evolving legal landscape. Meaningful access to justice can come from a balanced, multi-disciplinary approach to connecting legal problems with legal solutions.

Do you see the decline of rural lawyers as a problem? What other solutions might help?

Read Part II of the Disappearing Rural Lawyer here.

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