Legal Deserts: Race & Rural America

By Zachery Newton
Associate Editor, Vol. 26

Despite being the home of 20% of Americans, only an estimated 2% of practicing attorneys live in rural America.[1] It is not uncommon for rural counties to have few, sometimes zero, practicing lawyers. The shortage in these “legal deserts” is not for a lack of need. In 2017, low-income rural residents only received adequate legal help for 14% of their civil legal problems, which is less than half the national average for all low-income Americans.[2] Rural counties also incarcerate a disproportionate number of people – and for longer periods of time – compared to metropolitan areas, despite lower crime rates.[3] Although rural counties are majority white nationwide, rural communities of color – common across the Southwest, Southeast, and Midwest – are frequently more vulnerable to poverty and have less access to public services than their metro counterparts. The need for lawyers in rural communities is stark, but it is in tension with economic realities, current systems, and misperceptions that influence where lawyers live and practice.

Being poor in a legal desert can compound existing inequities, and a lack of knowledge about rural America can erect additional barriers to access and reform. People in rural areas are more likely to experience “persistent poverty” than their metropolitan counterparts. The United States designates counties experiencing poverty rates above 20% for over 30 years as being in “persistent poverty.”[4] And of the 353 counties with the designation, “301 are nonmetro.”[5] Many persistently impoverished counties with the highest poverty rates, such as the Rio Grande Valley and Mississippi Delta, are disproportionately “home to racial and ethnic minorities.”[6] Take Georgia for example, which, similar to many states in the Southeast, has a large Black population. Although nationally only 8.4% of rural Americans are Black, almost 26% “of Georgia’s rural and small-town population” is Black.[7] Of the 49 persistent-poverty counties in Georgia, 41 were non-metro, and eighteen were majority nonwhite.[8] There are robust rural communities of Native Americans in states like South Dakota, where Native Americans make up 9% of the state population and nearly all of some rural counties. Glaringly, the only South Dakota county with zero lawyers is part of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.[9] Additionally, populations that are more likely to need a lawyer, such as the elderly and disabled populations, are “all disproportionately represented in rural America.” Where these vulnerabilities intersect with race, it can exacerbate the negative effects of an already critical lawyer shortage.[10]  

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
Source: Greg Perry & New Glasgow News

Indigent defendants in rural areas also face unique challenges due to a shortage of lawyers. Rural counties are much less likely to have public defender organizations than urban or suburban counties, and sometimes the number of available, assignable lawyers can be vanishingly small.[11] In counties with few lawyers, conflicts of interest can quickly bring that number to zero in cases with multiple defendants or where local lawyers perform contract prosecution. The impact on indigent defendants can be harrowing. In a study of 10 Mississippi counties, the average delay from arrest to indictment for defendants facing felony charges ranged from “two months to over a year.”[12] While reforms and advocacy aimed at decreasing incarceration and pre-trial detention rates in urban areas have achieved moderate success, the jail population in rural America has soared. Between 1970 and 2013, incarceration rates increased by 436% in America’s rural counties – from 49 per 100,000 to 265 per 100,000.[13] Notably, only 39% of those in jail have actually been convicted of a crime.[14] A host of factors contribute to the problem, such as a lack of pretrial services, a shortage of lawyers and criminal justice personnel, and the perverse financial incentives in the “jail-bed market.”[15] Addressing the lawyer shortage may only be a partial remedy, but the arguably unconstitutional delays of justice and rising incarceration should not be ignored.

The extraordinary rates of law school tuition and attendant student debt weigh heavily on “most graduates’ decisions” about both where and what they will practice.[16] Higher student loan burdens incentivize students to practice in larger cities where there are more job opportunities and much higher pay than in rural areas.[17] As the frequent  chatter about law school-to-BigLaw pipeline suggests, high student debt burdens undoubtedly discourage students from pursuing public interest careers; moreover, most rural counties lack legal aid organizations, nonprofits organizations, and public defender offices that typically qualify as “public interest.” This makes the practice of law in rural areas more risky for those who are burdened with debt: because rural attorneys are generally in private practice, they are not eligible for federal loan forgiveness. Relying solely on income-based repayment options, even with regular payments, can leave new lawyers with more debt than they started with.[18] A lawyer seeking to provide low-cost, discounted, or even pro bono services to impoverished rural communities is arguably providing a public service, but is not a “public interest” lawyer. Running an office, building a business, and learning the practice of law all at once is enough to overwhelm even the most committed new lawyer – let alone a new lawyer carrying significant student debt.[19]

In addition to economic barriers, some new lawyers also expressed cultural concerns, such as not being accepted as an ethnic minority in a rural community, as a negative for rural practice.[20] Even though there are many racially and ethnically diverse rural communities that would benefit greatly from culturally competent counsel, especially where there are communication barriers, law school career offices frequently commit few resources to developing employment networks in rural areas. [21] Ensuring that law students are aware of these communities and connecting law students with legal opportunities there are critical to both address the misperception and the lack of lawyers.

In fairness, seeking out these opportunities can be difficult. There are frequently large distances between the law school and the rural location, which can make externships nearly impossible for students without remote learning options.[22] That spatial distance can also make servicing rural clients through a clinical program difficult. Without intentional investment by law schools developing rural networks, most law students will not be made aware of either the legal need or opportunities in rural areas. Ensuring that students and young lawyers are given opportunities to engage with rural communities might even dispel some stereotypes and alleviate one area of deep concern for many law students who could excel in rural practice.

Law schools “may be the best-placed institution to connect students” with practice opportunities that exist in a given rural community, such as the need for immigration and labor attorneys in California’s Central Valley or for disability specialists in towns with high senior populations.[23] To prepare law students effectively for rural practice, some scholars suggest offering coursework in general practice and practice management, which shifts some of the burdens currently placed on patchwork incubators to the educational space.[24] Without the promise of high salaries or “prestigious” work, some law schools and state bar associations have established rural incubators, mentorship programs, and succession planning programs to provide mentorship, personal investment, and often financial incentives for aspiring rural practitioners.[25] Even in programs that provide financial incentives, sometimes the economic realities of rural practice combined with student debt can still be prohibitive for new lawyers pursuing rural opportunities. Because students from rural areas are the most likely to return later in life,[26] some law schools have attempted to address this gap by increasing the low number of rural students who become lawyers. For example, Nebraska’s law school partnered with its undergraduate institution to provide scholarships and guaranteed admission for rural students interested in pursuing law.[27] By adopting and expanding upon programs like these, law schools can begin to address the critical shortage of lawyers in rural America.

[1] Lisa Pruitt & Bradley Showman, Law Stretched Thin: Access to Justice in Rural America, 59 S. Dakota L. Rev. 466 (2014).

[2] LSC defines “low-income” as household income below 125% of the Federal Poverty Line; Legal Serv. Corp., The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans, at 13 (June 2017),

[3] Jacob Kang-Brown & Ram Subramanian, Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America, Vera Institute of Justice, 6-8  (June 2017) .

[4] Lisa R. Pruitt, et. al, Legal Deserts: A Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice, 13 Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev. 15, 199 (2018).

[5] Id. at 119.

[6] Pruitt, supra note 4, at 119.

[7] Id. at 64.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 118.

[10] Id. at 119.

[11] Jessica Pishko, The Shocking Lack of Lawyers in Rural America, The Atlantic (July 18, 2019),

[12] Arielle Dreher,

[13] Kang-Brown, supra note 3.

[14] Id. at 10.

[15] Id. at 18.

[16] Pruitt, supra note 4, at 49.

[17] Id. at 58.

[18] Id. at 59.

[19] Wendy N. Davis, No Country for Rural Lawyers: Despite Incentives, Small-Town Attorneys Still Find It Hard to Thrive, 106 A.B.A. J. 32 (2020).

[20] April Simpson, Wanted: Lawyers for Rural America, (June 26, 2019),   

[21] Pruitt, supra note 4, at 150.  

[22] Id.

[23] Pruitt, Legal Deserts, supra note 4, at 152.

[24] Id. at 150.

[25] Jennifer C. Mock, Addressing the Scarcity of Rural Lawyers, 22 Ga. B.J. 10, 11 (2017).

[26] John Cromartie, Christiane von Reichert, & Ryan Arthun, Factors Affecting Former Residents’ Returning to Rural Communities, u.s.d.a Econ. res. Serv. 21 (May 2015),

[27] Simpson, supra note 20.