By Maya Shimizu Harris
Casper Star-Tribune 

Measure to incentivize rural attorneys moves on to 2024 session


November 16, 2023

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Heather Jacobson is a difficult lawyer to find. She doesn’t advertise. She doesn’t have a web page. Yet, she still has to turn away clients all the time — there are simply too few lawyers to serve everyone’s needs in rural Converse County, where Jacobson practices.

“Each one of those people that I have to turn away I think would also be sitting here to testify if they knew, saying that, ‘Yes, we need more attorneys in this town.’”

Jacobson spoke before the Joint Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in favor of a bill that would create a rural attorney recruitment pilot program — legislation that Wyoming State Bar Counsel Mark Gifford described as “the most tangible thing we have come up with to foster rural practice and serve the needs of rural residents in Wyoming” in his 13 years working for the state bar.

The bill passed in a 8-6 vote on Tuesday and will go to the 2024 budget session for consideration.

A 2020 report from the American Bar Association found that, at the time, there were 54 counties or county equivalents in the U.S. that had no lawyers. Another 182 had one or two of them, and nearly 1,300 counties had less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents. Many of these areas are parts of legal deserts — places where residents have to travel far to access routine legal services.

Wyoming is no exception.

About 70% of the state’s lawyers work in just five Wyoming communities — Cheyenne with 32%, Casper with 12.5%, Jackson with 11.5% and Laramie and Sheridan with the remaining 14%, according to data from the Wyoming State Bar.

Meanwhile, there are eight counties in the state — Converse, Hot Springs, Lincoln, Uinta, Goshen, Weston, Big Horn and Crook counties — that have fewer than 1.2 lawyers per 1,000 people.

Another eight have fewer than 3.9 attorneys per 1,000 people.

What’s more, not all of these attorneys necessarily offer services in the areas that people need, and about 60% of attorneys in underserved areas are over 55 years in age.

Gifford testified that the number of lawyers over 60 has grown by the year — when he first started working for the state bar, about 25% of registered lawyers were over 60, he said. That proportion has risen to over a third.

The legislation passed on Tuesday aims to tackle these challenges through an incentive pilot

program based on current legislation in South Dakota.

Counties that meet certain population and attorney-to-resident ratios could be eligible to participate. Attorneys who live in eligible counties would have to apply to be part of the program. If accepted, they would receive an incentive payment of more than $16,000 each year over five years.

The Wyoming Supreme Court, the participating county and the Wyoming State Bar would divvy up responsibility for those payments.

The pilot program would take effect on July 1, 2024 and have a sunset date of July 1, 2029.

While support for the legislation among lawyers in the room was unanimous, there was consternation among some of the lawmakers about providing incentives to attorneys while not to people in other professions.

More specifically, they were concerned that extending help to one group of professionals would lay the path to doing so for any number of other struggling professions in the state.

“The question is, where do we draw the line?” Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, a Wheatland Republican, asked, questioning if it would be the proper role of government to help draw attorneys to underserved areas. “And if we play this game, we’re gonna find ourselves down a road that we probably can’t turn back from.”

Sheridan Republican Rep. Mark Jennings, meanwhile, emphasized leaving the issue up to the free market.

“Do you want government entanglement to solve a problem where the free market is really the best answer?”

But the free market aside, people have a right to a fair trial, Laramie Democrat Rep. Karlee Provenza said, and the current structure doesn’t give everyone access to that.

What’s more, the matters that attorneys deal with dictate whether or not people have access to their kids, she said. They concern possibly revoking someone’s freedom and liberty.

This story was published on November 14, 2023.

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