Bringing Legal Resources to Legal Deserts

Legal deserts are regions in the United States that have no or few attorneys. These regions are generally rural communities. In recent years, the legal community has analyzed the characteristics and consequences of legal deserts, and their impact on access to justice. For example, in 2018, a Harvard Law & Policy Review article surveyed parts of California, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and South Dakota, called for increased data collection about legal deserts, and recommended creative approaches to provide legal resources to residents in those communities. The study found common challenges across these diverse states with regard to addressing legal deserts.

These challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, as legal resources were stretched thin due to the increased need for lawyers to help on issues such as unemployment, benefits, and evictions. In 2021, the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil legal aid in the United States, launched a task force to address access to justice in legal deserts, through strategies such as legal education for residents, legislative change, and pro bono legal assistance.

This Rural Justice Task Force was charged with identifying problems and solutions to access to justice challenges in these rural communities. Strategies such as creating self-help centers and holding clinics to better equip individuals to represent themselves pro se can be impactful, though they are not a substitute for legal advice from an attorney. Other approaches include creating “legal oases” through funding that encourages young lawyers to establish their practice in small towns and rural communities, and increasing remote representation, although the “digital divide”– some rural communities lack access to broadband internet–can be a further roadblock.

Georgia is a case study for legal deserts. Seventy percent of the attorneys in Georgia are located in four counties in the metro Atlanta area, while the other 155 counties have far fewer lawyers – or no lawyers at all. The Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice has been working on solutions to make the legal system accessible to more Georgians, an essential goal as challenges abounded during the pandemic. The Center mapped the lack of attorneys in many counties in Georgia, in particular noting the impact on individuals facing evictions who are unrepresented.  For example, tenants who were unaware of the federal eviction moratorium and lacked legal representation were more vulnerable to eviction.

The Georgia Legal Services Program is one organization working to ensure access to the justice system for low-income Georgians. Pro bono is one ingredient in their recipe for successfully increasing access to justice.  Pro bono attorneys can receive training and provide legal assistance to low-income clients in rural areas in a variety of civil legal matters. Come join us to learn about innovative solutions to legal deserts at the 2023 Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference. The session, “A Blueprint for Addressing Legal Deserts,” will focus on a case study highlighting Georgia Legal Services Program’s Wills and Estates Signature Project, which partners with large law firms and corporate legal departments to provide remote legal assistance in rural Georgia counties.