Arkansas’s rural communities face a looming crisis when it comes to access to essential legal services: a dwindling and aging attorney population in the state’s 25 most rural counties. A policy brief entitled Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas, released today by the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, indicates that these counties average fewer than 0.44 practicing attorneys per 1,000 residents. Seven of these counties have no attorneys licensed this millennium, and one has no attorneys at all.
Despite these sobering statistics, there is hope. Many Arkansas law students would consider locating in a rural part of the state if certain incentives were made available. Rural legal aid fellowships, loan repayment assistance, and paid internships are among the programs that a majority of law students showed interest in, according to the survey of law students and attorneys that is the subject of the policy brief. Rural attorneys indicated a greater willingness to mentor and hire young lawyers than did attorneys from non-rural communities.
The survey probed the likely effectiveness of five complementary programs that the state’s two law schools and the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission are jointly considering. Among the factors most likely to encourage students to practice in a rural setting were (1) the ability to have one’s own practice, (2) the opportunity to become a community leader, and (3) the ability to have and maintain their own clientele. Factors most likely to discourage students from locating to rural communities included (1) the perception that they would earn a lower income, (2) a perceived lack of career and economic opportunities, and (3) a relative lack of entertainment, restaurants, and similar amenities.
For questions about the policy brief, which details the results of a series of recent surveys conducted by Prof. Lisa R. Pruitt of UC Davis School of Law, please contact us. A forthcoming article in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review will provide a more in-depth analysis of the rural access problem and its implications.