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Lawyer Shortage In Some Rural Areas Reaches Epic Proportions


If you live in a rural area and you need legal advice, you might have to look a little harder. Large parts of rural America are running out of lawyers. And while to some that might sound like the set up for a lawyer joke, this is real, and it can create barriers to justice. Grant Gerlock of NET News in Nebraska reports.

GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: One sure sign of just how few attorneys there are in rural Nebraska can be measured in the amount of windshield time Tim Brouillette puts in.

TIM BROUILLETTE: I would guess that I would average probably 500 miles a week. Our mileage bill for our office is huge.

GERLOCK: Brouillette practices law in the western Nebraska town of North Platte. But at least twice a week, he's on the road, seeing clients 40, 80, even 100 miles away in towns that used to have lawyers. In fact, 11 of Nebraska's 93 counties have no lawyers at all - not one in the entire county. It's a symptom of the so-called brain drain in rural America. Young people often go away and don't come back, leaving small towns short of doctors, dentists, lawyers and even farmers. Brouillette has seen this first hand in McPherson County - zero attorneys. He goes there once a month to serve as county prosecutor.

BROUILLETTE: If somebody local gets charged with a crime simple as a minor in possession or maybe a minor theft or trespassing, they don't want the county to have to pay for indigent defense, so a lot of times they'll plea. And in some cases, you know, they may get jail time where they otherwise wouldn't.

GERLOCK: If they would have lived in the city, they would have had a public defender. Now, they have a record. Brouillette says estates messy because many rural residents die without wills. And people make mistakes handling their own divorces. Lisa Pruitt studies rural law at the University of California, Davis Law School. She says when rural residents do get a lawyer, they often pay more, which puts them at a disadvantage.

LISA PRUITT: Especially if, you know, the other side is the federal government, the state government or corporate interest or, you know, even a local school board.

GERLOCK: In numerous states with lawyer shortages, there are efforts to fix the problem. North Dakota, Iowa and others send law students to rural firms for summer internships. South Dakota offers a stipend to lawyers working in under-served areas. A new program in Nebraska recruits rural high schoolers to become rural lawyers. Each year, 15 students will get a tuition scholarship and future admission to the University of Nebraska law school. Lyle Koenig is with the Nebraska Bar Association.

LYLE KOENIG: If you start with kids that come from the country in the first place, there is a very good chance that they will come back to the country to practice law.

GERLOCK: They aren't required to return, but Koenig hopes that most will be like Tyler Pribbeno, who returned to his hometown in southwest Nebraska after law school to be close to family and also because he thought, at a larger city firm, he'd be stuck with a specialty.

TYLER PRIBBENO: I wanted to do a little bit of everything, and I just guess I didn't want to be married to the job as soon as I got done with the rigorous law school program.

GERLOCK: Pribbeno acknowledges that life is slower in a small town, maybe slower than a young lawyer may like. There aren't as many restaurants or entertainment choices.

PRIBBENO: You just made your trips elsewhere. But once you get used to not being able to go to the grocery store for milk at midnight, you get accustomed to it.

GERLOCK: The next step is to convince more law students from small towns to come back home to practice. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.