Far-Flung Places: A WSBA Travel Series on Rural Legal Practice

Two farmers in a field, shaking hands with an attorney.

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 chockfull of 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 lawyers.

The WSBA is often criticized, and often with good reason, for being too Seattle-centric at the expense of the rest of the state that exists beyond those boundaries. The counterpoint to that criticism is that many 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 confined to 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 default.

L.R. “Rusty” McGuire is a lawyer in a small town about an hour outside Spokane. In March, McGuire wrote for NWSidebar, “Why Young Attorneys Fear Working in Rural Areas and Why They Shouldn’t,” to share the perspective of 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. Usually, it has to do with spouses and employment opportunities,” McGuire wrote. “The rural areas are then left with no attorney assistance.”

Similarly, in July, 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 that there are parts of Washington where 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 Washington’s rural 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 Practice (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 then,” explained 2021-2022 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:

“Based on the definitions produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS) and an overview of Washington county population, we focused on counties with populations of less than 50,000 and more than 2,500. These areas are considered ‘urban nonmetro areas not part of larger labor markets’ by ERS. As part of the working definition, and for ease, we have termed these counties as ‘rural.’ Based upon WA county population data, we’ve pursued a hypothesis that counties with 30,000 or more as rural, but likely more adjacent to a labor market and perhaps have a varying set of circumstances that may differ from counties that are less than 30,000.”

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, NWSidebar 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 drive out and meet with them, 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 their own way and each geographically unique from one other, representing a widespread view of rural Washington from briny western shores to the meandering eastern plains.

Over the next few weeks, you can read these stories and learn about the benefits of living and working in rural Washington, the downsides to rural practice, and the things needed to improve legal services in places where the available lawyers are few and often getting fewer.