By Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
You have undoubtedly heard the term “legal deserts” lately. If you – like me – live in Cook County, you are surrounded by lawyers - lots of them. Cook County has more lawyers than the entire nation of Japan. But there are many, many areas right here in Illinois that have insufficient legal resources – to say the least. Some Illinois counties count the resident judge, State’s Attorney, and part-time Public Defender as the only lawyers.
The National Center for State Courts recently convened a Midwest Summit in Fall 2023 entitled “Legal Services … Are we lost in the desert?” to focus on the lack of attorneys and legal service providers in rural areas. Judges, court administrators and other stakeholders from Midwest states discussed how courts can respond to the unique needs and challenges of rural communities. Held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Illinois contingent consisted of Supreme Court Justices David Overstreet and Lisa Holder White, Sarah Taylor from the Illinois State Bar Association’s Rural Practice Initiative, Andrew Weaver from Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, Perry County State’s Attorney David Searby, Nathan Rowland, a private practitioner and public defender in Gallatin and Hamilton counties, and me.
Data from 2020 shows that 35 Illinois counties have 10 or fewer attorneys in private practice and 13 counties have five or fewer attorneys in private practice. The Summit looked at innovative options to place attorneys in rural communities and recent efforts by states to address lawyer shortages. As examples, Kansas and Nebraska have worked with law schools to place students and attorneys in rural areas and North and South Dakota created a Rural Attorney Recruitment Program. Tennessee’s Access to Justice Commission launched a mobile law office in 2022. The Justice Bus provides computers, internet access and printers so lawyers and other volunteers can provide on-the-spot access to legal help.
The Summit agenda also explored using technology to help solve legal deserts. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a rapidly changing technology, and the legal field is susceptible to AI because it takes a uniform writing style and combines it with large sources of information (West publishing, online dockets and case information). However, it could be possible for a well-regulated AI to provide support for individuals who lack access to legal services. These concepts are obviously in the very early stages and will need significant review, but the Summit encouraged attendees to consider the benefits of AI in addition to the challenges.
Here in Illinois, the ISBA created a Rural Practice Fellowship Program to connect rural and small-town firms with law students and new attorneys interested in practicing in rural communities. The program includes a $5,000 fellowship grant and mentoring. A separate Rural Practice Associate Fellows program places graduating law students and new attorneys as permanent associates with rural practitioners. This program includes $5,000 at the start of employment and an additional $5,000 if the associate is still working with the firm after one year. Applications for 2024-2025 are now open for both potential fellows and law firms and the deadline to apply is Feb. 2, 2024. Find out more here.
The Illinois Supreme Court announced
last week the Executive Committee on the Practice of Law (Executive Committee). This new committee is charged with making recommendations on issues impacting the practice of law and unmet legal needs. It is made up of 13 attorneys from around the state and is chaired by Chicago attorney Tim Eaton.
Similarly, the Midwest Summit provided a national focus on legal education and bar admissions. The high cost of a legal education and subsequent finances needed to study and pass the bar has serious implications for new attorneys who want to practice in rural areas. On Monday, national judicial leaders from the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) announced the formation of an 18-month study committee that will examine the state of legal education and bar admission processes in the U.S.
The Committee on Legal Education and Admissions Reform (CLEAR) will make recommendations to state supreme courts for practical reforms that will enhance legal education and diversify bar admission processes where appropriate. CLEAR will also look at the decline in attorneys dedicating their careers to public interest and public sector practice.
The topic of legal deserts has come a long way in a few short years. The lack of legal resources in rural areas is a serious issue that our courts must address to meet our mission of protecting the rights and liberties of all by providing equal access to justice. The Illinois Courts are committed to furthering this effort and encouraging creative ways to distribute legal services statewide to meet the need.