A shortage of lawyers in rural areas, as documented in a story in this newspaper this week, is a real problem. It’s also part of a troubling trend of professionals eschewing rural life to enjoy the advantages of living in more populated places.

Rural New Yorkers have 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, as well as the need for criminal defense. But keeping lawyers in small towns is getting harder. Experts say the situation will become more acute as older attorneys retire without new ones taking their places.

The situation echoes that of health care. More and more, the primary care providers for rural residents are not doctors, but physician assistants or nurse practitioners. For the most part, that works just fine. It may be time for changes in the delivery of legal services, too.

We’re glad to see the problem is being studied by a special task force created by the New York Bar Association. 

A task force member, 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, she said, they may decide that there is too little for them to do in their spare time in a rural town.

And then there’s money.

New attorneys may find the money they can make in small towns does not meet the financial burdens they carry from the debt they racked up from loans they used to get through law school, she said.

We understand that.

“Student loans come into the picture before you’re even admitted to the bar,” Dennis 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.

We think that’s fair. We’d also support tax incentives to help young lawyers get out from under that debt and get established in rural areas.

A report published in April by Albany Law School’s Government Law Center, based on survey answers from 573 lawyers in rural New York communities, found more than half the respondents at retirement age or approaching it. It also found rural areas lack 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.

Again, it’s about the money.

“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.

Scott Clippinger, a veteran attorney with an office in Smyrna, is a good representative of the situation. Clippinger, who opened his law office in the state’s least populous village 37 years ago, said practicing law in small towns is highly rewarding on many levels.

Clippinger, also a member of the task force, fits the profile of the survey. He’s 76. 

Many rural lawyers practice in regions where the justices presiding over the local town and village courts are non-lawyers. Perhaps it’s time to expand the role of paralegals in the system, just as professionals a step below doctors deliver medical services.

We’ll look forward to the task force report.

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