Analysis: In Rural New England, a Crisis in Legal Representation

As the number of lawyers dwindles in rural New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, residents face an increasing threat to their constitutional legal rights. States can do more to help.

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Northern New England is heading toward a crisis, its people are increasingly finding themselves without places to turn for fair representation in the court of law. The Northern New England states, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine have a long history of rural outmigration. They’ve made various attempts to reverse the trend, going back to the 19th century. Now the loss of the next generation of rural lawyers could mean residents lose their right to timely legal representation and fair treatment in the court of law.

New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont are the three oldest states in the country by median age. This aging population is reflected in the demographics of the state bar associations. More than 60 percent of Vermont’s lawyers are over the age of 50. More than half of New Hampshire’s bar members are over age of 51; a quarter are older than 61. (For more on the demographics of the Maine bar, see my article in Legal Ruralism).

This issue is not new. In 1990, the Maine Commission on Legal Needs, chaired by Senator Edmund Muskie, found that, “[p]oor people living in a city in which a legal service office is located were nearly two times more likely to obtain legal assistance, and six times more likely to have obtained free legal service, than those not living in such a location. Residents of these cities were also twice as likely to be aware of the availability of free legal services.”

In Maine, this issue has reached pandemic levels and shows no signs of getting better. Only 10 percent of lawyers outside of Cumberland County, the state’s most urban county, are under the age of 35.

The situation is even worse than it sounds. Northern New England, like almost every other rural area, employs lawyers at rates that fall below the national average. That’s going to further reduce the supply of lawyers.

As the bar continues to age and young lawyers continue to stay away, this problem will only get worse. All three states are an upward trajectory in terms of median age, with little sign of that changing in the short term. If lawyers are not moving in to takeover for lawyers who are aging out of the profession, then that law practice dies and yet another town goes without a lawyer.

How do we solve this problem? Some changes that would be good for rural areas generally (like better broadband) might help with the lawyer shortage. But there are also targeted ways to address the problem. Student-loan forgiveness could help. Rural practice is often solo practice and many young lawyers graduate with high student loan debt and may find starting their own firm to be cost prohibitive. Law schools can do more to expose students to rural practice while they are still in the classroom. This is already being done in some places. University of Maine places students in rural areas for summer internships and Vermont Law School operates the South Royalton Legal Clinic, which allows students to work with the local and very rural population. Schools could place students in rural communities during the school year, allowing them to take classes remotely as they gain practical experience. Finally, schools could do more to attract rural students more broadly. Rural students enroll in higher education at a lower rate than their urban and suburban areas and closing that gap might lead to more people moving back to their rural communities to help solve this crisis.

Why is solving this problem important? Because the ability to access the courts and receive fair representation under the law is one of our core national values. When a town loses a lawyer, they lose someone who can uphold that ideal. When you lose a lawyer, you also open the door to a litany of negative consequences. For example, when a tenant is facing eviction from their home on a questionable premise, they may find themselves faced with the unenviable choice of either leaving their home or taking time off of work to drive to a distant town to find a lawyer who may be able to help them. For many working people, taking time off work means fewer dollars in their pockets, which may limit their ability to pay rent in the future and land them back in housing court. This is also a public safety issue. If a family member wants to seek custody from a negligent or unfit parent, they may be faced with having to travel to find a lawyer who will take their case. You can easily imagine a situation where the negligent parent is able to hire one of the few, maybe even the only, lawyer in a rural community. In this situation, the person seeking custody has to travel to find a lawyer, once again taking time off of work to do so. For many in rural America, the ability to equitably access the courtroom is becoming a fleeting dream.

Christopher Chavis  is  a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. His article, “The Past, Present, and Future of Rural Northern New England: A Study of the Demographics and How It Affects the Rural Lawyer Shortage,” is forthcoming in the University of Maine Law Review.

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