President’s Corner > The Rural Attorney Shortage is Turning Into a Crisis in Washington State 


I remember growing up and watching an old TV program called Green Acres. Maybe some of you remember its catchy theme song: “Green Acres is the place to be, farm living is the life for me … land spreading out so far and wide, keep Manhattan just give me that countryside.” Unlike the main character in the show, attorney Oliver Wendell Douglas, who leaves big-city practice in New York for a farm in a small country town, most law school graduates in Washington are not moving to rural areas of our state to practice.

The American Bar Association noted in a 2020 report11 that rural areas are often “legal deserts,” with insufficient numbers of attorneys to represent people in all manner of cases, both civil and criminal. This is an ongoing and seemingly increasing problem that small towns and rural communities across the country, including in Washington state, are facing. As attorneys practicing in rural areas retire and/or move away, these communities struggle to recruit and retain attorneys to replace them.

A quick look at the current WSBA demographics reveals that numerous rural counties in Washington have only a handful of active licensed attorneys:

  • Adams: 16
  • Asotin: 18
  • Columbia: 11
  • Ferry: 4
  • Garfield: 4
  • Lincoln: 18
  • Pend Oreille: 5
  • Skamania: 10
  • Wahkiakum: 8

Ten of the state’s 39 counties have 30 or fewer active WSBA members to facilitate access to justice by prosecuting and defending criminal matters, and providing legal representation for civil and domestic relation matters. In these 10 counties, there are 117 active attorneys in total. I’ve never thought of Yakima County as a particularly large county in terms of population, but by contrast, it currently has 438 WSBA members.

There currently are 26,240 active WSBA attorney members22 Demographics can be found at that practice law within the state of Washington. The vast majority of WSBA members are located in King County and in the neighboring major counties along the I-5 corridor. Spokane County has 2,031 attorneys. The entire 4th Congressional District (Adams, Benton, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Okanogan, and Yakima Counties), which is the largest geographic area of the state, has only 1,152 current active WSBA members, with the majority of these located in Yakima and Benton counties.

As a result of the concentration of attorneys in more populated areas, there is a massive shortage of attorneys in rural areas, and to make the situation worse, we are seeing trends where law school graduates, by and large, are not choosing to locate and set up practices in these rural areas. There are some obvious reasons for this: Washington’s three law schools are located in Seattle and Spokane, and these major cities offer more and higher paying jobs at bigger firms. Most law school graduates tend to be in their 20s or 30s, and to be blunt, most rural areas simply do not offer the variety of restaurants, entertainment, and social opportunities that urban areas can provide. Many law school graduates have significant student loan debt, and lower salaries in rural areas—particularly for governmental attorneys—can be a barrier to attracting and retaining new and young lawyers to rural communities.

 As more baby-boomer generation attorneys retire, along with other attorneys who chose to stop practicing during the pandemic or do something else with their law degree, the shortage of WSBA members in rural parts of the state will have an even more profound impact on the legal profession in Washington.

Shortage of Deputy Prosecuting Attorneys and Defense attorneys in Rural Counties

In Yakima County, where I’ve spent my career, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Department of Assigned Counsel are not seeing many attorneys apply, despite salary and signing bonus increases in 2022 for vacant positions. The result is that criminal deputies in the office are facing felony caseloads of 90 to 200, with an average so far in 2023 of 124 cases per felony prosecutor. Most of these cases involve complex and violent felony crimes. The Yakima County Prosecutor’s Office usually files around 2,500 cases a year, most of which are assigned to a public defender from the Yakima County Department of Assigned Council. The shortage of attorneys creates potential harm to public safety as well as a reduction in effective prosecution and criminal defense efforts. In addition, criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, so having enough defense attorneys in these areas is critical to ensure that the constitutional rights of defendants are being met.

Sadly, this isn’t a situation in only Yakima County, nor is it felt only in the criminal arena. There are also shortages of civil attorneys in public and private employment. Speaking from experience, my office has had a vacancy for a civil attorney in our small corporate counsel division for 15 months and counting. This forces remaining attorneys to take on substantially more work and stress in performing their job duties.

The attorney shortage also means there are fewer attorneys to take on pro bono, low bono, and moderate means cases, greatly harming access-to-justice efforts.

STAR Committee and Other Efforts

The WSBA’s Small Town and Rural (STAR) Committee has been attempting to identify the various facets of this complex problem, and to work with local law schools and county bar associations to provide innovative solutions. The STAR Committee has started conducting rural employer job fairs with the three Washington law schools to help match graduating law school students with potential rural employers.

Last year, Washington law schools partnered with Heritage University, a small private college in Toppenish, near Yakima, to create a new program designed to make obtaining a law degree more accessible to BIPOC students in the Central Washington region.33 The three-week intensive summer program is funded by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) program. The program featured several Washington Supreme Court justices, a mock law school class, meetings with minority bar associations, and other avenues to help prospective students apply to law school, apply for grants, and more. This program was developed in partnership with six additional organizations: Northwest Justice Project, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Columbia Legal Services, TeamChild, the Benefits Law Center, and the Office of Civil Legal Aid. The goal of the program is to create a pipeline of local undergraduate students from underrepresented communities who will, it is hoped, apply for, be accepted into, and complete traditional law school and ultimately return to their communities and practice law.

In the last issue of Bar News, I highlighted another great way to address the attorney shortage in rural areas of the state—expanding the APR 6 law clerk program. The APR 6 program allows people with a B.A. degree who are interested in becoming an attorney, such as a paralegal or a legal assistant, to partner with a qualified attorney, law clerk tutor, or assistant tutor for four years. The end result, at a cost of approximately $8,100, is a law clerk student who is qualified to sit for the Washington bar exam and become a licensed attorney. Participants in the law clerk program are also more likely to stay in the same small town or rural area where they’ve worked and have families and in this way help to increase access to justice for the members of these communities.

These are some of the many reasons that I have been and will continue to be a major advocate of the APR 6 program. I would like to see the Washington Supreme Court consider expanding the rules of the program to allow for an unpaid APR 6 tutor or panel of tutors to take on more than one APR 6
law clerk student at a time. Such a rule change could increase the pipeline of APR 6 law clerk students becoming attorneys who can help ease the shortage of practitioners in rural communities.

While these efforts are important and should be encouraged, I believe we as a Bar Association and legal profession need to develop more aggressive approaches to recruitment and retention of attorneys to provide necessary services to the public throughout the state.

As always, it remains a tremendous honor to serve as your FY 23 WSBA president. Please feel free to reach me at with any questions, comments or concerns.

About the author

Dan Clark is a senior deputy prosecuting attorney with the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’€™s Office. He can be reached at:



2.    Demographics can be found at