BY COLIN RIGLEY
You’ve never heard a joke about how few lawyers there are because it would be demonstrably false. In America, there are 1.3 million of them, enough to collectively rival our most populous cities. And according to the job platform Indeed, “lawyer” is among the most common jobs in America.
So you couldn’t be criticized for thinking there are too many lawyers. However—and it’s a big however—it depends on who you’re talking to and where they live.
The city of Seattle, for example, is lousy with lawyers. In Seattle, there are roughly three active-license lawyers for every 200 residents. In Garfield County, on the other hand, there are three. Not three per capita. Not three percent of the population. Literally three.
The WSBA is often criticized, and often with good reason, for being too Seattle-centric at the expense of the rest of the state. The counterpoint to that criticism is that most of the lawyers in Washington call the Seattle area home. Nearly half, 45 percent, of the active legal professionals listed on the WSBA’s legal directory are registered in King County. Seattle alone is home to approximately 11,500 WSBA members; in other words, about one-third (32 percent) of legal professionals are located within a single city in a state of about 7.7 million people.
If you need a lawyer and live in King County or nearby, that’s great news. But if you’re among the 70 percent of the state (about 5.5 million people) who do not live there, your legal troubles are probably more complicated by the difficulty of finding someone to represent you.
L.R. “Rusty” McGuire is a lawyer in a small town about an hour outside Spokane. In March, McGuire wrote “Why Young Attorneys Fear Working in Rural Areas and Why They Shouldn’t,” for NWSidebar, sharing his perspective as a longtime rural attorney witnessing the dwindling of the profession in rural areas.
“We struggle to hire and retain lawyers in rural areas for several reasons,” McGuire wrote. One of those reasons is a lack of employment opportunities for spouses, he said. “The rural areas are then left with no attorney assistance.”
Similarly, in a July NWSidebar post, Arian Noma, who serves as the Moderate Means Program (MMP) staff attorney for Gonzaga Law School, wrote about the urgent need for legal providers in underserved rural parts of the state.
“As lawyers, we must do better in recruiting for all of Washington, so the MMP program can deliver services equitably to all residents, regardless of where they live,” Noma wrote.
It’s no secret, therefore, that in parts of Washington there aren’t enough lawyers to meet the legal needs of all the local residents. A burgeoning movement at the WSBA, however, seeks to change that.
In 2019, a group of WSBA volunteers and staff began what was then called the Rural Practice Project (RPP) to analyze the state of legal services available in rural Washington, as well as other jurisdictions in the country, better understand the problems, and identify potential paths forward that the WSBA could take to address access-to-justice gaps in these communities. In 2021, upon the RPP group’s recommendation and with a unanimous vote and approved budget from the WSBA Board of Governors, the Small Town and Rural (STAR) Committee was formed to build upon the work of the RPP as a long-term, multi-faceted endeavor of the WSBA.
“We’ve been running at full speed ever since,” explained STAR Committee Chair, and WSBA President-Elect, Hunter Abell.
One challenge is simply defining what it means to be a rural area. According to the STAR Committee’s officially adopted definition:
The RPP originally defined rural based on counties with populations of less than 50,000 residents. The STAR Committee, however, defines rural as counties with populations with less than 30,000 residents. As of this writing, the committee was scheduled to revisit the definition and possibly refine it further.
The Committee has also adopted a three-phase strategic plan to provide community education and outreach, pipeline and placement programs, and serve as a resource for job opportunities pursuant to the committee’s charter. Committee members have made plans to host a rural job fair designed to encourage more law students to settle in rural areas after graduation. It’s also exploring economic strategies like a rural fellowship program for new lawyers and potential loan forgiveness for law students who choose to practice in underserved rural communities.
“There is undoubtedly an economic component to practicing in rural areas,” Abell said. “What we’re trying to get across to folks is you can have a very satisfying career and a satisfying personal life by living out in these rural areas.”
According to Abell, Washington is helping lead the way in a wider effort toward bringing more legal services to rural areas. A survey of bar associations found that about 30 bars in the U.S. hadn’t done anything to reach out to rural areas, Abell said.
In line with these goals, WSBA staff has also been reaching out to rural areas to highlight the many varied aspects of practicing law throughout all of Washington. In coordination with members of the STAR Committee, we reached out to rural practitioners throughout the state and asked to meet with them in their communities, spend a day learning about their legal practices and their daily lives, and share their stories. We ultimately landed on three law practices, each distinct in its own way and each geographically unique from the others, representing a widespread view of rural Washington from briny western shores to meandering eastern plains.
RURAL PRACTICE PROFILES
Got something to say about rural living and/or law practice?
Meetings of the WSBA Small Town and Rural (STAR) Committee are open to the public and your participation is highly encouraged. Meetings are held on the fourth Wednesday of the month at noon. To learn more, visit the STAR Committee page on www.wsba.org.