February 2021Volume 109Number 2Page 8

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President's Page

Introducing the Rural Practice Initiative

Providing access to justice through the ISBA’s Rural Practice Initiative.

Dennis J. Orsey

All Illinois State Bar Association presidents champion a program or project during their presidency. Mine is the Rural Practice Initiative. There are 1.3 million lawyers in the U.S., but they are mostly concentrated in larger cities, while many small towns and rural counties have few lawyers. This shortage of attorneys poses the greatest hurdle for lower-income individuals and others for whom traveling long distances to see a lawyer is difficult or simply not feasible.

This was one of a number of observations of the ISBA Special Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative (RPI), which I established when I took office in June 2020. The committee is cochaired by Daniel Thies of Webber & Thies and Lois Wood, who recently retired as executive director of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid.

The committee members are:

Tom Archer, John Bailen, Michael Bergmann, Trent Bush, Cindy Buys, John Erbes, Brian Flynn, Ebony Huddleston, Hon. Mike McCuskey (retired), Heather McPherson, William Peithmann, Laurel Rigertas, Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea, Hon. Ron Spears (retired), Sarah Taylor, Shira Truitt, and Angel Wawrzynek. Stacey Weiler, director of grants and access to justice with the Illinois Bar Foundation, has provided insight in assisting the committee. Krista Appenzeller, assistant general counsel for the ISBA, serves as staff liaison and has been of tremendous help in organizing materials for the committee. This committee has worked tirelessly since its formation to develop and fund a program that will be up and running by this summer. My thanks to these individuals for their time, commitment, and suggestions on developing a program of which we can all be proud.

The mission of the committee is to increase access to attorneys in rural areas of Illinois and to identify and implement a viable program that supports the establishment of young lawyers there. To that end, the committee studied programs from other state bar associations, taking into account what has worked and what has not worked to create a program that will best serve our needs in Illinois. (For more about the RPI, read “Small Town Law” on page 18 of this issue.)

In Illinois we are no different than other large states with large urban population centers. These centers tend to attract a majority of practicing attorneys. In Illinois we have 13 counties with five or fewer private-practice attorneys. The RPI’s goal is to place attorneys or soon-to-be-graduating law students into a rural community where they can start their legal careers and become successful.

One of the aspects of this program is succession planning. We know that in a number of counties, there is an aging lawyer population. A number of these practicing attorneys have good, viable practices with a built-in client base. They are looking for younger attorneys who are willing to settle in these rural communities and eventually take over their practices and provide quality legal representation to that client base.

Participants in this program can become involved in the community, network through involvement with local organizations, and develop a good reputation. Establishing a good reputation in the community will open other opportunities, such as becoming a state’s attorney, public defender, associate or circuit judge, or even an elected official. Many of these rural communities draw their leaders from the local attorney population. If you are interested in government leadership, getting established in one of these rural communities as a practicing attorney is an excellent stepping stone.

I would encourage lawyers who are looking for an associate or law clerk to learn more about the RPI and let us know of your interest. The application deadline for the Fellowship Program is Feb. 12, 2021. This information and more can be found on the Rural Practice Fellowship Program page.

Through the RPI and other programs, such as our Illinois Lawyer Finder, the ISBA continues to address access to justice by making quality legal services available to Illinois residents.

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