May 2021Volume 109Number 5Page 10

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Update on the ISBA’s Rural Practice Initiative

Demand exceeds expectations in the program’s inaugural year.

Dennis J. Orsey

When I established the ISBA Special (now Standing) Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative (RPI) in June 2020, the committee, charged with identifying and implementing a viable program that supports the establishment of a program placing young lawyers in rural areas of Illinois and increasing access to justice for Illinois’ rural residents, was given an aggressive timetable. The committee studied similar programs from other state bar associations and took into account what worked and what did not. The committee was expected to announce the program in six months and implement it by this summer! Committee members worked tirelessly and exceeded all expectations.

The RPI’s Associate Fellows Program aims to place graduating law students and new attorneys as permanent associates with rural practitioners. The ISBA Board of Governors initially appropriated $50,000 in start-up monies to help place associates and summer clerks with rural practices. When the program was being developed, the committee anticipated approximately 20 applications the first year. The committee produced a video promoting the need for the program and created a Rural Practice Fellowship Program webpage. The program includes a $5,000 stipend at the beginning of employment and an additional $5,000 stipend if the associate remains with the same firm after one year.

The RPI’s Summer Fellows Program aims to connect law students with rural practitioners and give them a taste of rural practice before they leave law school. The program includes a $5,000 grant and mentoring. All participating attorneys must be ISBA members.

A tremendous start

The original plan was to place four associate attorneys and two summer clerks. But the response to the program far surpassed the committee’s expectations when it received 106 Fellow applications (30 seeking an associate placement; 76 seeking a clerkship) and 56 law firm applications (40 seeking an associate; 16 seeking a clerk).

The following are a few of the responses the committee received from around the state:

Colleen Becker, Genoa: “Thank you very much for bringing this issue to light and for creating the Rural Practice Initiative to assist rural firms in Illinois. Your efforts are sincerely appreciated and we would welcome the opportunity to be a part of the program.”

Tom McClintock, LaSalle: “The Rural Fellowship Program would allow our firm the opportunity to ease some of the financial burdens a Fellow is faced with in today’s society. The reduction in financial burdens under this program would allow a Fellow to experience what practicing in a rural area is actually like. Our firm works almost exclusively in rural counties and practices several fields of law. Gaining experience in a rural county will give a Fellow a sense of what rural practice is actually like.”

Gary Gehlbach, Dixon: “Our firm is located in an area with an aging population of attorneys. As the older attorneys retire, there are not enough young attorneys to replace them. The Fellowship Program is a great way to introduce a young attorney to the area and give them first-hand experience of practicing outside of a metro area. Our firm’s goal is to ensure that our rural community has the ability to maintain access to competent and cost-effective legal representation into the future.”

Blinn Bates, Lincoln: “I am very excited about this program and I believe it will be extremely beneficial for rural firms and communities in Illinois.”

Jaspereet Lochab, law student: “I deeply appreciate that the Illinois State Bar Association[’s] … Rural Practice Initiative has launched two fellowship programs aimed at supporting attorneys in exploring the rural practice. …[T]he Rural Practice Initiative … is greatly necessary and should be a model for other bar associations in different states.”

Alex Pullen, law student: “I think the Rural Practice Fellowship is an excellent opportunity to further explore what it is like to take care of the legal needs of rural communities.”

Booster shot

To address the overwhelming response to this program, committee cochairs Daniel Thies and Lois Wood requested an additional $71,000 from the Board of Governors, which overwhelmingly approved the request at its March 2021 meeting. This additional funding will allow for the placement of 10 associate attorneys (two in each of the four appellate judicial districts outside of Chicago plus two “at large” associates anywhere in Illinois) and four summer clerks (one for each of the four appellate districts outside Chicago). The additional funding will allow for enough placements in the first year to give the program a track record of success. In particular, we will be able to use data gathered from first-year placements to strengthen the case in future years for outside funding. This will also allow for a larger number of program alumni who can offer testimonials and other marketing assistance, which will broaden our outreach opportunities.

I would like to add my personal thanks to members of the Board of Governors who have recognized the need this program fills. This RPI has also gained the attention of our Illinois Supreme Court. Chief Justice Anne Burke has expressed interest in conducting a Zoom meeting later this year with individuals who have been placed in the RPI’s inaugural class of fellows and encouraging them in their decision to practice in a rural community.

While only in its first year, the RPI has gotten off to a great start. Still, the standing committee has been challenged in locating outside funding sources due to how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted traditional funding sources. Fortunately, the ISBA’s financial position has benefitted from operational savings allowing the Board of Governors to provide support to the initial stages of this worthwhile project.

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