COLUMN > A Note From the WSBA Executive Director
BY TERRA NEVITT
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My dad is an optometrist in Raymond (population 2,963). He’s the only one in Raymond. In fact, he’s the only one for 30 to 50 miles in any direction. We moved to Raymond when I was 3. My dad finished optometry school and joined the practice of Dr. William J. McKinney. The plan was for my dad to practice with him initially as an employee, then become a partner and eventually buy the practice. It worked well. Dr. McKinney was able to transfer the practice he spent his life creating—from the building and the equipment, right down to the staff and the goodwill—and my dad was able to step into that practice and make it his own, investing in new technology, developing new systems, and building a new office that he still walks to and from every day. My dad is my role model for loving what you do.
His retirement plan has always been to repeat what Dr. McKinney did and sell the practice to someone ready to make it their own. And over the years, he’s tried. Several doctors have come and gone for one reason or another. Maybe small-town living didn’t suit them. Maybe their spouse couldn’t find a job. Maybe their student loan debt was too much to take on the debt of buying a practice.11 According to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession (2020), from 2000 to 2016, average law student debt rose 77 percent—from $82,400 to $145,500. More information at www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf. Whatever the reason, so far, it hasn’t worked out. My dad will turn 71 this year, and I wonder: Who will serve that community when my dad is no longer able to?
All of this was on my mind when I sat in the offices of MDKJ Lawfirm in Davenport, two years ago on the annual WSBA Listening Tour. Then-President Bill Pickett, Governor P.J. Grabicki, and I were sitting around the firm’s conference room table eating pizza and listening to L.R. “Rusty” McGuire talk about what a hard time they’ve had recruiting lawyers to join their firm. “We pay the same rate as the Spokane firms,” he told us, “and that goes a lot further in Davenport. We can offer attorneys a great practice and a great lifestyle here.”
We spent the next hour talking about the many benefits of a small-town practice—the variety of legal issues you get to take on, the deep relationships you form, and the ability to leave the office early to coach your kid’s baseball team. We also brainstormed the reasons that it’s so difficult to convince new attorneys to move there. We had lots of theories, all very similar to the reasons I suspect my dad hasn’t been able to find anyone to take on his optometry practice.
When I visited Davenport that day, the WSBA had already been talking about this problem—the problem of insufficient numbers of practitioners in rural communities and the resulting access-to-justice gap—for many years: The Washington Young Lawyers Committee had been working on a summit to address the issue. Concerned with the lack of referrals for the Moderate Means Program, our public service team was exploring what states like South Dakota22 www.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/us/subsidy-seen-as-a-way-to-fill-a-need-for-rural-lawyers.html. are doing to promote rural practice. We had even budgeted to pilot some kind of rural placement program but hadn’t gotten it off the ground yet. I told Rusty about some of our plans, and he seemed doubtful that it would be of any help. We left Davenport convinced of two things: (1) we need to solve this problem and (2) we need to do so in partnership with the folks already practicing in what have come to be referred to as “legal deserts.”
The American Bar Association’s 2020 publication, ABA Profile of the Legal Profession,33 www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf. provides data that illuminates the legal desert problem nationwide. The first chapter covers legal deserts, stating that while there are more than 1.3 million lawyers in the United States, they are not evenly distributed. On average, there are four lawyers for every 1,000 people in the U.S. (Washington comes in a little below the average with 3.5 lawyers per 1,000 people); most are concentrated in urban areas, leaving some rural areas with less than one lawyer per 1,000. What’s worse, in some areas, the only attorneys work for the government, leaving the community with few if any resources for legal representation, particularly in civil matters.
Shortly after our meeting in Davenport, the WSBA put together an informal team to investigate Washington’s unique challenges. The group included representatives from each Washington law school, former and current members of the Board of Governors, representatives from the Washington Young Lawyers Committee, and WSBA staff from across the organization. Over the past 20 months, the group has conducted considerable research, including outreach to 182 practitioners in rural counties. In addition to the survey feedback, 41 rural practitioners, representatives from legal aid organizations, the Attorney General’s Office, prosecuting attorneys’ offices, and tribal communities participated in brainstorming sessions designed to gather potential solutions.44 You can view survey data as well as summaries of the brainstorming sessions, and generally learn more about the work of the rural practice team in the meeting materials for the April 16-17, 2021 Board of Governors meeting at p. 482, www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/about-wsba/governance/bog-meeting-materials-2000-2001/board-of-governors-meeting-materials-april-2021.pdf?sfvrsn=d4f414f1_4. The group ultimately prioritized three initiatives that the WSBA can facilitate: (1) outreach and education about the unique needs, opportunities, and benefits of rural practice; (2) development of a pipeline of rural practitioners, including through an incentive program to encourage the exploration of rural practice; and (3) highlighting rural job opportunities and assisting with the purchase and sale of rural practices. The WSBA has created the Small Town and Rural (STAR) Committee to drive these initiatives and has been actively recruiting members.55 Volunteer recruitment closed July 27, 2021. www.wsba.org/connect-serve/committees-boards-other-groups/small-town-and-rural-committee. Questions and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m looking forward to supporting the STAR Committee as they take steps to implement these ideas. And as we’ve begun the 2021 Listening Tour, I’m looking out for the work to be prioritized next.
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Distribution of Legal Professionals in Washington
The counties in our state most impacted by a shortage of lawyers are Adams and Franklin Counties (.5/1,000), followed by Ferry and Douglas (.6/1,000), Skamania and Asotin (.7/1,000), Pend Oreille (.8/1,000), and Stevens and Klickitat (.9/1,000).
Want to learn more about the crisis of “legal deserts”? Visit www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2020/08/legal-deserts-threaten-justice/.
1. According to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession (2020), from 2000 to 2016, average law student debt rose 77 percent—from $82,400 to $145,500. More information at www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf.
4. You can view survey data as well as summaries of the brainstorming sessions, and generally learn more about the work of the rural practice team in the meeting materials for the April 16-17, 2021 Board of Governors meeting at p. 482, www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/about-wsba/governance/bog-meeting-materials-2000-2001/board-of-governors-meeting-materials-april-2021.pdf?sfvrsn=d4f414f1_4.
5. Volunteer recruitment closed July 27, 2021. www.wsba.org/connect-serve/committees-boards-other-groups/small-town-and-rural-committee. Questions and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.