October 2020Volume 108Number 10Page 12

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Casting a Line

ISBA launches Rural Practice Initiative to address access-to-justice gaps in less-populated counties.

One anecdotal response to a survey administered this summer by the ISBA’s new Special Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative neatly, albeit with slight exaggeration, sums up the state of rural law: “Attorneys leave [rural practices] quickly because reasonable rural attorney salaries are less than student loan interest payments.”

Or, maybe the following response better captures the gist: “I have noticed that it is more difficult for clients in rural areas to have access to good internet. This makes it more difficult to send documents in a quick and efficient way. I have also noticed that the courthouses in rural areas are more outdated than courthouses in the urban areas.”

Yet other responses flip the script. Some small-town and rural attorneys report that young recruits have “unrealistic expectations of salary [and] work load” and leave shortly after arriving.

But the cumulative story told by survey respondents—more than 500 ISBA members, 75 percent of whom serve small towns and rural areas in the state—draws a more nuanced picture of what stands between rural Illinoisans and the quality legal services they need. It is a story told from multiple points of view set amid stark market realities, personal preferences, and no easy answers.

For years, Illinois has followed trends across the U.S. showing dwindling legal resources for rural populations. According to a 2017 report by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, “Cook County and the six collar counties contain 65 percent of the state’s population and 90 percent of the state’s attorneys.” Meanwhile, more than half of Illinois’ 102 counties added fewer than five new attorneys between 2012 and 2017, with 16 not having added any.

“Tens of thousands of people in Illinois live hours from an attorney,” says ISBA President Dennis Orsey, who launched the Rural Practice Initiative (RPI) committee as a cornerstone to his 2020-21 term.

“The ISBA’s Rural Practice Initiative intends foremost to help rural Illinoisans find the legal services they need—efficiently and effectively,” Orsey says. “But the committee also would like to create programs that spark interest in practicing law in rural Illinois and provide resources to ensure it can be done successfully.”

The ISBA’s Rural Practice Initiative

The committee, cochaired by Daniel Thies and Lois Wood, met for the first time this June, when members began discussing a wide array of issues, including defining “rural” and which Illinois counties would meet that definition; whether an inaugural RPI program could follow a “matching service” or “clearinghouse” model; fundraising; and the need for additional data to guide decisions. The committee has also been discussing the creation of a rural summer associate or clerkship program. (More information about the ISBA’s Rural Practice Initiative.)

“We’ve seen reports for years on the access-to-justice crisis in rural America and Illinois,” says Wood, former executive director of the Land of Lincoln Legal Aid. Wood, who lives near Edwardsville, says RPI programs will do more than continue to raise awareness of access to justice in rural Illinois.

“The committee has a real opportunity to place solutions on the ground,” Wood says. “President Orsey has brought together attorneys from all areas of the state, as well as from the law schools, to address a problem that’s not going away.”

The committee has adopted an aggressive timetable to develop and implement key elements of its mission, Orsey says.

Pete Sherman is managing editor of the Illinois Bar Journal.

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