Forgive some Midlanders if they chuckled at news that some places in Nebraska need more lawyers.
National statistics show that less than two-thirds of law school graduates found jobs in 2009 that required them to pass the bar exam, so a shortage of lawyers anywhere sounds unusual.
In all seriousness, however, the shortage of attorneys in rural Nebraska is a real problem, one with costly consequences for business owners, financial planners, immigrant workers and others who want their legal affairs in order.
People get married and divorced in small communities. They buy real estate. They plan their wills. But in a dozen Nebraska counties, there isn’t a lawyer to be found, according to the Nebraska State Bar Association. That forces residents to travel up to 200 miles for legal help — no laughing matter.
For communities without lawyers, or with one about to retire, the significance of having a local lawyer is little different than having a doctor or a dentist. For rural communities to be attractive to new residents, these services are needed.
The Nebraska State Bar Association recognizes the problem and this year rolled out a rural practice initiative that seeks to educate law students on the opportunities offered by working in rural areas.
The state bar associations in Iowa and Kansas also have programs to encourage lawyers to look beyond the big city. South Dakota’s legislature passed a law offering lawyers a subsidy to work in rural areas.
The bar association offers a five-week clerkship program for people who want to pursue opportunities outside of Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties.
And the association this year sent 28 law school students from Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on bus tours to rural communities to highlight both the needs and the opportunities.
The problem might warrant some additional attention, possibly something along the lines of efforts by the University of Nebraska Medical Center to encourage general practice doctors to practice medicine in rural Nebraska. Those programs include efforts to recruit rural students who want to return home after graduation and financial help to decrease debt from student loans.
Lawyers setting up shop in rural counties might not earn big-city salaries, but bar association officials point to a number of benefits. Those include being able to do a wide variety of legal work and often finding quicker routes to law firm partner. The lower cost of living in smaller towns can help offset the salary differences. Lawyers can help lead their new communities.
And the breadth of law being practiced is unparalleled. Young lawyers could have a chance to spell county attorneys. Others might work as public defenders in criminal cases.
Sounds like good experience that addresses an important need for rural Nebraskans.