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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Mark C. Palmer
As Chief Counsel, Mark leads professionalism programming through the statewide mentoring program, collaborating with stakeholders from Galena to Cairo. Mark also supports the development and delivery of educational programming to lawyers and in law schools. When not in the office, you will likely find Mark and his wife busy raising their twin daughters, enjoying his passion of traveling and eating around the world, and training for his next half marathon.
Mark C. Palmer

22 thoughts on “The Disappearing Rural Lawyer

  1. Has anyone asked those of us who are “rural lawyers” if we have an opinion regarding the decline of the practice of law in rural areas? Local counsel is no longer considered for representation by units of local government especially school districts. Counsel is from Chicago area law firms who vigorously recruit at IML annual meetings, school administrators and board conferences and conventions. Maybe more importantly local can’t concentrate on a given discipline because there isn’t enough traffic to sustain a practice.
    I really don’t expect a reply. None of my earlier comments have been responded to.

    1. I have practiced in both Chicago and central Illinois and have definitely noticed a concerted effort by big law firms to stomp out general practitioners in this state. The disturbing result of this trend is that now lawyers are being pushed into being specialized, quitting the profession altogether, or taking inferior roles working as staff at big law firms. Obviously, this is all to the detriment to the access to legal services for citizens throughout Illinois, who need lawyers that they can trust in their communities NOT some Big law attorney from Chicago.

      Dont’ be shocked if these same big law actors will now promote “access to justice” in rural areas as part of their routine pro-bono pinkwashing. Big Law is very much a CAUSE of the access to justice problems in this State and throughout the country.

    2. Yes, I have firsthand seen and experienced the very points you proffer. This conversion of addressing the specific needs of rural and “micro-urban” communities across Illinois has seemed to come up more and more lately, especially in my role as a board member of the ISBA, and led to my further research and drafting of this post.

      I practiced for a decade in Champaign but often “rode the Circuit” and beyond for cases large and small in many 1-2 courtroom counties in central Illinois. Like many, e.g. Jared’s comment below, I enjoy the general practice of law across a spectrum of practice areas and a new challenge each day. I look forward to hearing from other rural lawyers about their experience with fewer new attorneys in their geographical areas, along with possibly fewer support staff, paralegals, etc.

      Lastly, I see one other comment on our blog from you which I replied to back in March 2019. Happy to always engage in a dialogue and share. Thanks for your comment. ~Mark

  2. As a private attorney in rural Illinois, I think this article overstates the problem in Illinois. For example, of course, Cook County is going to have a very disproportionate percentage of the State’s lawyers, considering Chicago is one of the two or three largest legal hubs in the country. Many of Cook County’s lawyers represent people and companies from all over the Midwest and the world. The same would be true for some of the lawyers in the collar counties, although obviously to a lesser extent. There are certainly some counties in Illinois where the lack of lawyers is a problem, but, from my point of view from a county of 30,000 in southern Illinois, there are plenty of lawyers. People who do not hire lawyers in this area are doing so because they cannot afford one, not because they cannot find one.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chris. Your point of Chicago housing a large scale amount of attorneys naturally due to the business hub it is is well taken. My greatest concern is the trend, not just the numbers. Of course much can be said across all industries and across the world, as urbanization only increases.

      Along the same lines, I think there is a parallel problem of more and more SRLs attempting to resolve legal problems with legal solutions on their own. Maybe methods like limited scope rep could find creative ways to serve more clients in cost effective ways for them and keep our profession valued. Also, I think we as a profession are greatly underutilized to addressing legal needs that most people don’t even consider… but that is a whole new conversation (and access to justice issue).

    2. The article does start out with the distribution of attorneys, but the article then lays out the real problem of access to justice. To me, “People who do not hire lawyers in this area are doing so because they cannot afford one, not because they cannot find one” is that real problem. There should be options for more people to be able to afford an attorney. Period.

  3. I think there is a stark decline in the ability of individuals to retain counsel as pointed out in the article. I practice in Macoupin/Montgomery/Greene/Jersey primarily. Notably, these counties are suffering economically, especially Macoupin.

    I would agree with Ronald when he says that “rural” attorenys can’t really focus on a specific area due, I currently practice “a little of everything.” This is not my ideal way to practice, but it does keep my day exciting, and overall makes me a better attorney.

    Notably, one of the reasons I chose to join my current law firm was the fact that there are largely no rural lawyers today. I am the second youngest attorney in the County, the youngest being the son of an attorney who has since retired. In the next 5 years, I see several more retirements from the legal community coming as well.

    The market, and the income is there, for anyone who wants to make the leap. However, one of the biggest obstacles that I currently face is the being too busy curse. So much volume has to be maintained to have a comfortable bottom line that having the time to dedicate to certain matters is just not there. This is also a problem with staffing, it may be difficult to attract attorenys to rural counties but it is also equally difficult to attract and retain proper support staff. Luckily we have not had a problem yet, but we are currently in the market for at least a part-time paralegal/legal assistant and have not had good luck in finding an appropriate candidate who wants the salary we can offer and the time.

  4. Two problems:
    1. too much debt coming out of school.
    2. too much fear to hang out a shingle.
    However, to all young attorneys: you can make A LOT of money in rural Illinois, BUT
    –you will work your rear off (that is good!)
    –you will be forced to deal with government lawyers who are clueless about running a practice (deal with it)
    –you will wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your clients, etc. etc.
    The rewards are tremendous. Do it now. It is way better than having someone else tell you what to do.

    1. Mr. Filbert is dead on in all respects. My father, who started our firm after WWII embraced these principles, and they have fed me well in turn — both spiritually and financially. My hourly rate is less than half my Chicago counterparts, but: I can walk to work, and park for free when I drive. My overhead is less than 40% of receipts, I know my mayor, my cops, my school board, my kids’ teachers, and my kids are safe on the streets. If you are diligent, and conscientious, and make every client’s problem YOUR problem, you will have more work than you can do and will enjoy a quality of life our urban peers cannot imagine. And when you’re bored, there is a whole world of travel adventures just one short trip to the airport away.

  5. I agree with some of each reply, basically, most of the people who live in small town Illinois, live there
    because they cannot afford housing in the bigger towns. They commute everyday to the bigger towns for work and do not want to take time off to see a lawyer in their home town. If they need a lawyer, they stay in the larger town for legal needs. It is not easy to make a good living in a small town. I have worked for over 40 years in a small town – 1600 people live in my town, and there are 6000 – 7000 people in my county. We have court one day a week. One by one each of my fellow attorneys in this area have retired, become a judge or quit the law altogether. I am not sure what the answer is, but there will be a real crisis of access to justice out here. We have had no new attorneys admitted to practice in our county for more than 20 years.

  6. I attended SIU School of Law, which, by the way, is an excellent law school. I can favorably compare it with Northwestern University School of Law, where I worked for several years. Many of my SIU Law fellow graduates could still be practicing law in their more rural counties, however, I know of quite a few who simply gave up on being a lawyer because of the tremendous burden of all the CLE classes, the huge licensing fees, the requirement to take a whole list of extra courses if one does not carry insurance, etc. It was all just way too much for them to pay and keep up with. They could have been there to help people at low cost or even for free, but they are not there because the Illinois State Bar made it too burdensome for them. Things that might help rural areas have lawyers practicing would include: having free or very inexpensive co-working places available so that lawyers can go in and have an office and/or conference room to meet with clients when needed; getting rid of the huge licensing fees and cutting way back on the CLE. Having done hundreds of hours of CLE now, I see that the courses are so repetitive, particularly the courses about bias, discrimination, and substance abuse. How about let people take a short test to see if they have that stuff down pat, and then given them the equivalent in credit hours? Or how about once a lawyer has accumulated 100 CLE hours, then lessen the burden in the reporting time periods? Or something? And this business of making people do the same type of courses as some sort of punishment for not buying insurance? All that does is scare lawyers away because it is another added burden that falls on those who cannot readily afford insurance. How about have a transportation fund to help rural lawyers pay for cars, insurance, and gas, so they can travel to represent clients who do not have money to pay them? How about making sure judicial candidates are well-qualified so rural and small town lawyers are not wasting their time going in to court to have their cases judged by unqualified people on the bench? How about establishing nonprofits that hire rural lawyers to pool together as a nonprofit to be paid to do such things as school law, disability law, mental health law, land use planning, and other types of law that people need, but cannot afford? I would not be posting this comment if I did not know a bunch of well-qualified people with whom I attended law school who are no longer practicing law. If you want women, minorities, and people from modest backgrounds to be able to practice law, you have to lessen the burden on them and give them positive help.

  7. I agree the paucity of lawyers is getting to be a problem downstate. Perhaps we should start emphasizing low cost of living and high quality of life out here in the sticks. I live in a 3,000 sq. ft. house sitting on 3 acres. Value $48,000. No garbage trucks banging. What would that cost in Cook County or the collar counties? My standard of living would go down if I tripled my income by moving to Chicago. My commute is 10 miles through the countryside, 17 minutes, 4 stop signs, 2 traffic lights. On my commute, I look for wildlife and native plants. I used to try to identify by name 10 drivers going the other way, just for yucks. (Only accomplished it twice.) You look people in the eye on the streets, because there’s a good chance you will know them. Meanwhile, we have internet and cell service, plus we can see the stars in the sky.

  8. 38 years, all in rural Illinois, 32 years solo practice and just retired. Thoughts;

    Susan and Bruce hit the major pluses and minuses. 40 years ago the private practice of law required a law degree, bar admission, a typewriter and a ‘phone line and frankly not a lot more. Today, between malpractice insurance, CLE, bar membership, subscriptions, and an office it takes hundreds of dollars a month just to call yourself a lawyer. My son, a recent grad just went to work as a first year associate at big law for approximately the same annual as I gross with 38 years experience and an established practice. It’s easy to see why new attorneys are not drawn to small towns.

    All that said, Bruce is also right. There are a lot of intangibles and the cost of living is wonderful. Retirement has brought up in idea of relocation, but I doubt there is anyplace else where I would want to live that I could afford to live.

  9. One critical resource to Illinois’ delivery of legal services was left out of the article – In 2019 to date, the website has been used by individuals and families in 1104 of Illinois’ 1495 zip codes, or 74%. So far this year, 1.23 million Illinoisans accessed the website to find free help with civil legal issues, interactive court forms, referrals to lawyers, and other self-help resources.

    1. Thank you, Teri! We are so fortunate to have a great resource like ILAO in Illinois, which continues to set an example across the nation on providing legal information for SRLs with an easy user interface.

  10. I greatly appreciate the article and comments. I simply wanted to add that their are people of faith seeking to involve communities in addressing the access to justice problem. In the collar counties there is Administer Justice,, which provides all levels of service. In the city, collar counties and soon to be downstate there is Gospel Justice Initiative,, which is national in scope and provides limited engagement services out of churches which are often places of trust and helpful resources in communities. We serve all people without regard to any status, but we help expand access to justice by involving people of faith who are not always engaged through traditional bar and LSC programs. I would add that states like Tennessee and Mississippi are piloting these faith based initiatives as a means of expanding access to justice in rural areas. These church teams serve more than just legal needs and sometimes provide wrap-around personal support, while bringing lawyers on site via zoom or skype. Faith based legal aid is small but we are joining the efforts of others in expanding access to justice.

  11. The photo inset of this piece reminds me of downtown Mt Pulaski in Logan County. It’s a place Abe Lincoln once visited in his practice.

  12. I have practiced in 35-40 counties, was born in a small town and have a small practice in Springfield, so I’ll add a thought here.

    We are in the same plight as the medical field, both for the reasons stated above (disparity of income and access to goods and services), and because of the requirements that practitioners must have a large staff just to access and submit information. I know an MD well who told me that he was retiring early because his practice was largely taken up with satisfying his IT staff’s newest systems and not with medicine.

    It seems that lawyers who don’t have an IT staff or a sys.admin. to handle the electronic filing aren’t welcome- and that seems unnecessary in small counties where relatively few cases are filed per year. Whether it’s state or federal courts or any form of administrative hearing, each seems to have a different e-filing system and different problems associated with that system. Because of that, staff must be more highly trained (i.e. more expensive), and must devote more time to unnecessary administrative functions (not to mention hardware and software). Small firms and solo lawyers and small-town law firms and lawyers, in turn, must involve much lawyer time to handle these IT issues. As a result, small practices are getting expensed out of the business (just like the MD’s) regardless of how good they are at their profession.

    We in the legal profession have always prided ourselves on access to justice, but we’re making it harder and harder for our profession to practice–much less the general public. So, yes, we can go back to riding the circuit- if we have a driver and an IT staff.

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