The Moderate Means Program urgently needs your help to address scarcity of legal service providers in rural Washington
BY ARIAN NOMA AND MICHAEL R. ADDAMS
Living in Washington state can be expensive. On average, Washingtonians experience a cost of living that is 13 percent higher than the national average.11 www.rentcafe.com/cost-of-living-calculator/us/wa. The specific cost of living varies throughout the state, with Seattle’s average cost of living 37 percent higher than the rest of the state and 54 percent higher than the national average, and more rural parts of Washington having a cost of living that is lower (albeit only slightly lower) than the national average.22 Id. Depending on the part of the state someone calls home, prices for essentials like housing, gas, and groceries can vary greatly. But no matter where you live, legal services can be expensive. And if you live outside of the major population centers, these services can also be more difficult to access.
THE SITUATION ON THE GROUND IN RURAL COMMUNITIES
Finding affordable legal services in Washington is challenging, and the problem only intensifies in the state’s rural communities, many of which are legal-representation deserts. Despite rural counties’ populations being much smaller than those in urban centers, the demand for legal services still far outweighs the local supply. While residents of rural areas experience the same legal challenges as residents of larger cities, rural residents often have access to less help and fewer resources than those living in major epicenters. It is not surprising that attorneys are more abundant in the more populated areas of the state.
Outside of the cities, it can be very hard to find civil legal aid or low bono legal services. In addition to there being fewer private attorneys, there are fewer Qualified Legal Service Providers (QLSPs) to provide services to those in need. For example, there are roughly 42,000 people living in rural Okanogan County, but only about 60 lawyers listed in the county. Some of those lawyers are employed by the government and cannot engage in private practice, leaving even fewer to serve the 42,000 residents. To add to the problem, Okanogan County is one of the poorest counties in the state. So even if there were enough attorneys to handle the amount of litigation in the county, middle-income residents might not be able to afford the cost of representation. This may be especially true if they engage an attorney in a bigger city who will likely need to bill for the time and mileage to travel to the rural area.
With respect to civil litigation, then, Washington residents who live in rural areas and who are less than rich are, to a significant extent, excluded from accessing the justice system solely because of their location and economic status. Low- or middle-income Washingtonians oftentimes cannot afford to bring or defend basic litigation in most forums.
THE MODERATE MEANS PROGRAM AS ONE SOLUTION
There is a statewide program that is working to address the civil legal aid crisis in rural areas of Washington, and it needs your help. The WSBA’s Moderate Means Program (MMP) matches moderate-income clients with a network of legal professionals who are willing to take referred cases at a reduced rate. These attorneys offer assistance on issues of family, housing, consumer, and unemployment law. Unfortunately, the demand for attorneys who will accept reduced rates for their services greatly outnumbers the supply, especially in rural Washington.
The current scarcity of MMP attorneys serving rural counties severely impacts the ability of MMP to provide services in those parts of the state. As another example, in the area of family law, the MMP has only about 45 participating attorneys in Spokane County. Forty-five attorneys might sound like enough participating members to take on the moderate means demand in one county, but over 500,000 people live in the greater Spokane County area. Many Spokane attorneys also take cases in the five surrounding counties and beyond. As a result, even eligible clients are often not able to have their matter successfully placed with an MMP attorney. The demand greatly outweighs the supply.
There are even fewer rural MMP lawyers in Chelan and Douglas Counties, which share just 8 active MMP lawyers. Pend Oreille, Adams, and Garfield Counties have no available MMP attorneys. Thankfully, some MMP attorneys are willing to provide phone consultations to clients who are unable to find a referral in their area. This is helpful, but this phone advice cannot compare to actual legal representation, which is what the MMP is intended to provide.
Part of the challenge for lawyers practicing in rural counties relates to supply and demand, but another challenge is the fees they are able to charge. Although most rural counties have a lower cost of living than the cities, the county setting can pose unique challenges to a legal practice. Wages tend to be lower in rural communities. For this reason, lawyers often charge lower hourly rates than lawyers located in larger cities. Where an attorney’s hourly rate is already lower, the attorney might not be able to afford further reductions. While lower wages and rural poverty amplify the need for MMP lawyers in those communities, the same issues can prevent lawyers from establishing a local practice or signing up to serve moderate-income clients.
While these challenges are real, there are also many benefits for MMP participating lawyers, such as access to free CLE trainings, a network of legal mentors, and expanded ways to find clients and build a professional network. There are also the benefits of earning hours towards pro bono publico recognition and knowing that you are making a difference for someone who otherwise could not find legal representation for what may be the hardest thing they have ever faced.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
As an attorney, you really can make a difference in someone’s life. The Moderate Means Program is one way you can reach those in real need of help, and the program needs more attorneys who are willing to take on cases at a discounted rate—especially in rural areas.
Visit the Moderate Means Program page on the WSBA website and sign up to be an MMP attorney. Choose the counties where you are willing to take cases, and the areas of law you can accept. You don’t have to take on a full caseload of MMP cases; you can take just one case and still make a major impact. While more attorneys are needed statewide, you can especially improve access to justice by agreeing to take cases in the more rural counties.