Confronting Legal Deserts in Rural America

Unlike urban areas with a plethora of law offices and legal aid organizations, rural communities often lack the necessary infrastructure to provide essential legal support. This gap can leave individuals without the means to address crucial legal issues, ranging from family matters to property disputes. A “rural legal desert” refers to areas where residents face significant challenges in accessing legal services and representation. 

We recently collected firm-level data from 2014-2021 from more than 350,000 law offices (Figure 1), together with socio-demographic data for 3,108 counties in the continental U.S., to statistically quantify the scope of the rural legal desert problem and shed light on potential solutions. Additionally, we examined the implications of limited rural legal representation on various societal factors, including rural poverty, economic development, and social equity. 

Figure 1: Legal Employees Per 1,000 Individuals (2021)

Notes: Figure shows the number of legal employees per 1,000 residents for each U.S. county as of calendar year 2021. Data underlying this figure are obtained from Data Axle (2022).

Assessing the Problem: We found that—when evaluated on the basis of legal employees per capita—urban communities have approximately 150% greater access to legal services than those in rural areas (Figure 2). According to our data, Arkansas, Mississippi, and New Mexico are among the states where the problem is most severe. Worsening the situation, this trend is escalating over time: legal practices are becoming more concentrated in densely populated cities rather than being dispersed across both urban and rural areas.

Figure 2: Access to Legal Services Across the Rural-Urban Continuum (2021)

Notes: Figure shows the average (mean) number of legal employees per 1,000 residents for counties at each point along the USDA Rural-Urban Continuum Code. As shown in the Figure, the most urban U.S. counties have approximately 4.89 legal employees per 1,000 residents, whereas counties in the four most-rural categories have (respectively) 1.82, 2.36, 1.48, and 2.14 legal employees per 1,000 residents. Legal employee data for this figure are obtained from Data Axle (2022), and county Rural-Urban Continuum Codes are obtained from the USDA Atlas for Rural and Small-Town America.

Even among rural communities, our analysis highlights a stark inequality with respect to legal access. We found that poorer rural communities have significantly less access to legal services than comparable rural areas with higher per capita incomes. Further, communities with larger shares of minority ethnic groups also experience statistically inferior coverage of legal services compared to areas with predominantly white, non-Hispanic populations. This social-inequality barrier to rural legal access is most substantial for Native and Black Americans, but also exists for Latinos.

Bridging the Justice Gap: Our findings highlight the need for targeted policy interventions and innovative solutions to address the rural lawyer shortage. One policy intervention that appears to have been successful is Project Rural Practice (PRP) established by the South Dakota Legislature in 2013. The PRP program provides incentive payments to attorneys who commit to serving five continuous years of practice in an eligible rural county. This program improved legal representation in rural South Dakota, both relative to rural areas of Iowa and relative to urban areas of South Dakota evaluated over the same time period. 

Final Thoughts: Recognizing the unique legal challenges faced by rural areas is a necessary step in the move towards a more equitable and inclusive justice system that ensures equal access to justice for all individuals, regardless of their geographic location.

Schaefer, K. Aleks, and Andrew Van Leuven. “Confronting Legal Deserts in Rural America.” Southern Ag Today 4(8.5). February 23, 2024. Permalink