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There are reportedly some 183,000 registered lawyers in New York State, yet only three percent live in upstate rural areas -- which encompass thousands of square miles.

In one of its recent publications, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) noted a “shortage” of upstate lawyers and has expressed considerable concern about the ramifications. “NYSBA is deeply committed to making sure all New Yorkers across the state, regardless of where they live, are treated fairly by our justice system and have access to the legal services they require,” said Hank Greenberg, the voluntary bar association's President.

Greenberg noted that his organization has created a “Task Force on Rural Justice,” whose goal is to investigate “the impact of rural attorney shortages on access to justice, challenges in delivering legal services in rural areas, and the unique practice needs of rural lawyers.” The Task Force’s analysis will be focused on five different “complex” issues: rural law practice, broadband and technology, funding, law schools and new attorneys, and law and policy.

Many acknowledge that adequate legal representation is of critical importance, with Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Garry, of the Appellate Division, Third Department, noting that attorneys are key to “preserving the beauty and quality of life in rural places.”

A survey conducted in 2018 by the Government Law Center at Albany Law School found that aging is one of the biggest reasons for the current shortage. Of the survey respondents, for example, “Nearly 75% of the attorneys were 45 years of age or older,” noted the NYSBA piece. “With few to no new attorneys entering rural practice, this suggests that within 20 to 30 years, the great majority of current rural lawyers will be retired.”

While opportunities abound, quality of life may end up being a detraction for younger people, with some rural lawyers complaining that they have only “taken one day off, including weekends, all year,” or that they “get more intake calls that [they] can return.”

But whatever the reason for the scarcity, NYSBA acknowledges that a crisis exists and that there must be changes made to public policy and the law to stem the tide. As one survey respondent noted, “I am the only lawyer handling complex business transactions .... I am 69 years old and cannot retire because too many people rely on me.”

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For more information about this story, please visit www.nysba.org/ruraljustice.

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