Topeka, KS — Charles Peckham works 70 hours a week as an attorney. He’s 72.
He daydreams about retirement. But if he closed up shop, clients would just show up at his home in Atwood, Kansas.
“(Stopping) is not workable at this point,” he said.
The next closest attorney is 30 miles away. That might not be accessible for the older population in need of legal help.
Atwood boasted six attorneys, counting Peckham, when he first arrived in 1983, but that number has dwindled down to two and the other attorney farms on the side.
If the town of about 1,300 people in a county with some 2,500 had enough lawyers, Peckham could cut back his workload and spend more time with his grandchildren. But with nobody around to take over his practice, he’ll keep working.
Stories like Peckham’s are not unique.
Three of four Kansas attorneys are licensed in just five counties. Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte and Douglas have 78% of the over 6,500 lawyers in the state. In the 103 counties statewide, 40 have five or fewer licensed lawyers and eight have only one.
The number of attorneys in Western Kansas is dropping as older lawyers retire with nobody around to take their practice. Attorneys have too much work and clients might travel long distances for representation. The attorneys that do practice are often general practitioners who handle everything from divorces to burglary defendants to farm law.
Shawn Leisinger, associate dean for centers and external programs at Washburn University, helps with the university’s rural attorney program. He said some counties could easily support two to three times the number of lawyers that they currently have.
The solution to the problem seems simple. If older attorneys are retiring, just find younger ones to take over. The demand is there, which should mean those people could make a decent income. But Leisinger said it isn’t that simple.
People need to understand and connect with the community they represent, they can’t just be dropped in, Leisinger said. They need to be mentored.
Washburn’s rural attorney program is doing that. It allows students to finish their education from anywhere in the state and pairs them with mentors. The program has placed a few dozen attorneys into rural Kansas in the last five years, but Leisinger says “it’s a drop in the bucket based on the demand that’s out there.”
This isn’t a Kansas-specific problem and the state Supreme Court is creating a task force to address the issue. It’ll include people from all across Kansas who will eventually recommend changes to encourage more attorneys to move out west.
The state could take inspiration from Nebraska or South Dakota – two states that have also attempted to address shortages.
In Nebraska, a possible solution came in two waves. First, law students were driven to rural corners of the state to talk with community members to see what their needs were, and then they set up interviews with firms in that area.
The bus tours have since stopped, but twice a year job-seeking lawyers meet with law firms that are hiring as part of the Rural Practice Initiative program.
In South Dakota, someone could sign a contract that pays 90% of one year’s resident tuition and fees at the University of South Dakota Law School. In return, that person would practice law for a minimum of 35 hours a week for a set amount of weeks over the span of five years.
Nebraska’s program netted at least 38 attorneys and South Dakota got 13. Even those small numbers can make a difference in remote places.
Sam Clinch, associate executive director with the Nebraska Bar Association, said small towns would start to dry up without the program.
“You have a lot of clients that are traveling 100 to 150 miles one way to get a simple will drafted, a divorce case or a real estate transaction,” he said. “That’s an access to justice issue when you have people that have to travel 300 miles round trip to do a simple will.”
Zoom has become more prevalent in court cases, but multiple people told the Kansas News Service that it’s only a tool and not the sole solution to the problem. Local attorneys know their communities, judges and potential jurors better. And while big-city lawyers are qualified to represent someone over Zoom, they can’t understand the nuances of each community.
Peckham has lived in larger cities – like Chicago and Washington, D.C. – before moving to rural Kansas. He said people in urban and rural settings both fail to understand the perks of living in one place or another, but he wants more people to give rural Kansas a try.
“You’re going to have to be more reliable and independent,” he said. “But if you’re interested in the family, spending a little more time with Mother Nature and avoiding a long commute to do your job, I think this is worth looking at.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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