ALBANY — Rural New Yorkers run into the same situations in life that require legal assistance as residents of urban and suburban regions — contract disputes, estate planning questions, real estate transactions and divorce, for instance.
But finding lawyers to advise folks who live in small towns has become increasingly challenging in "legal deserts" — areas where attorneys are in short supply.
It's a problem now being studied by a special task force created by the New York Bar Association, with experts saying the situation is only going to become more acute as older attorneys retire without new ones taking their places.
One task force member, veteran attorney Heidi Dennis of Plattsburgh, director of the Rural Law Center of New York, said luring lawyers just starting out in the profession to rural areas is difficult.
Unless they have family ties to the region or enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking or skiing, they may decide that there is too little for them to do in their spare time in a rural town, Dennis said.
They may also find the salaries being offered do not meet the financial burdens they carry from the debt they racked up from loans they used to get through law school, she said.
"Student loans come into the picture before you're even admitted to the bar," she said. She said structuring loan forgiveness programs to relieve education-related debt for lawyers who agree to practice in rural regions would be one way to address the lawyer gap.
A report published in April by Albany Law School's Government Law Center made several eye-opening findings following an analysis of survey answers offered by 573 lawyers in rural New York communities.
Among them: More than half the attorneys surveyed are at retirement age or fast approaching it. Also, rural areas are suffering from a dearth of lawyers with specialized, high-needs skills.
The report also found rural lawyers are being overwhelmed by the volume of cases they are handling, with many facing financial stress.
The lawyer shortage has crimped the ability of many rural New Yorkers to use the court system to address their needs. More than 60 percent of the lawyers who responded to the survey said they are unable to refer people to another attorney because there is simply no one in their region with the type of expertise the clients need.
"Research confirms what many attorneys in upstate New York already know — that there is an access to justice crisis in rural areas throughout New York and across the country,” said Henry Greenberg, president of the New York Bar Association.
In Chenango County, Scott Clippinger, a veteran attorney with an office in Smyrna, population 200, said practicing law in small towns is highly rewarding on many levels.
Clippinger, 76, opened his law office in the state's least populous village 37 years ago. "People said then I was going to starve," he recalled. "But I'm very comfortable."
He said lawyers in small towns find they become "part of the fiber of the community," and are vital assets for community organizations that seek them out to serve on boards of directors.
"Small town folk tend to have an agrarian mindset," Clippinger said. "We still do business on a handshake with a lot of these people. I would hate to see that being lost."
Clippinger has also been appointed to the bar association's task force. Like Dennis, he suggested one problem that should be addressed is the pile of debt that many recent law school graduates are carrying.
"They have so much debt from the expense of law school that they can't afford to come into a rural area," Clippinger said. "They have to earn a relatively big dollar to support that debt."
The task force is expected to investigate how the shortage of rural lawyers is impacting access to justice in small towns and identify the needs of rural attorneys. It is expected to issue recommendations next year.
Many rural lawyers practice in regions where the justices presiding over the local town and village courts are non-lawyers.
Tanja Sirago, president of the New York State Magistrates Association, said as the bar association's decision to study the lawyer gap in rural areas underscores the value of the non-attorney justices serving in the local courts.
Sirago, a town justice in the Greene County community of Cairo, said her association supports the initiative and has asked to have input in the study.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.