The State of Rural Practice in Washington: Urgent Needs for Moderate Means Program

Farmer shaking hands with a lawyer in front of tractor in field

Finding affordable legal services in Washington state is challenging, the problem only intensifies in Washington’s rural counties.

Consider the WSBA’s Moderate Means Program (MMP), a statewide program that matches moderate income clients with a network of legal professionals for assistance on issues of family, housing, consumer, and unemployment law cases at reduced fees. The scarcity of attorneys creates a significant challenge in finding meaningful referrals for this program. As a result, Washingtonians in need of lower-cost legal help often receive no successful or meaningful referral, leaving them without affordable help and rendering the MMP mission nearly impossible to accomplish.

The scarcity of attorneys in rural counties severely affects program efficacy. For example, for a legal practice area such as family law, the Moderate Means Program has only about 10 participating attorneys in Spokane County. Ten attorneys might sound like enough participating members, but the Spokane County greater area serves a population of over 500,000. As a result, even eligible clients are not able to have their matter successfully placed with an attorney.

Elsewhere there are even fewer rural MMP lawyers, and some counties have no one available. Thankfully, some MMP attorneys are willing to provide phone consultations to clients who are unable to find a referral in their area. But this phone advice cannot compare to actual in-person legal representation, which is what the MMP is intended to provide.

Pend Oreille, Okanogan, and Grant Counties are all without any available MMP attorneys. Chelan and Douglas Counties, similarly, share just five active MMP lawyers. 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.

I believe part of the challenge for lawyers in rural counties relates to supply and demand and the fees they are able to charge. Although most rural counties have a lower cost of living than the cities, the country setting can pose unique challenges to a legal practice. Wages also tend to be lower in rural communities and hourly wage jobs are sometimes non-existent. For this reason, lawyers often charge much lower hourly rates than lawyers located in larger cities. Overall, lower wages and rural poverty amplify the need for Moderate Means Program lawyer members in rural counties, yet those same issues can prevent lawyers from establishing a practice there or signing up to serve moderate-income clients.

There are other valid reasons preventing attorneys from establishing in these underserved rural communities. In such areas where an attorney’s hourly rate is already lower, they might not be able to afford further reductions. At the very least, some attorneys might believe that an MMP case could not be financially viable. However, there are other benefits for 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.

It’s also safe to say that some attorneys are simply unaware of the program and that participating law schools have difficulty getting the word out.

For these reasons and more, it is vital that anyone who is able to participate in the MMP at least give it fair consideration by reading about the program on the WSBA website and reviewing resources like the Moderate Means Program Manual.