At last count Ethiopia had 434 lawyers, or about as many as Davis Wright Tremaine. Niger has 77 lawyers, which is fewer than Baker & Mc­Kenzie’s 13th-largest office. Both nations have about one lawyer for every 150,000 people, with nary a Global 100 firm in sight. To get an idea of how low that figure is, imagine if the United States had to operate its entire legal apparatus with only the 2,100 lawyers who joined the Illinois bar on November 1.

“In many countries there are not enough lawyers, and that’s the fundamental problem,” says Microsoft Corporation general counsel Brad Smith, who has made legal capacity–building in developing nations a pro bono priority, and leads nearly as many lawyers as those in Ethiopia and Niger put together.

“There’s a terrible problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa of limited access to justice [that has been] created by the inadequate supply of lawyers,” says University of Arkansas law professor Nicholas Kahn-Fogel, who recently authored a study entitled “The Troubling Shortage of African Lawyers.” He adds, “I can’t say there’s an ideal number to shoot for. What I can say is that it needs to be more than one in 150,000.”

Zambia is in some ways typical of sub-Saharan Africa, says Kahn-Fogel. It had no lawyers at independence in 1964. The 731 that now exist congregate overwhelmingly in the capital city, and prefer commercial law to criminal law, mostly because of the pay. As a result, there are huge gaps in legal services within Africa’s villages and the countries’ criminal courts. A third of Zambian prisoners have had no trials.

The institutions charged with training the rising generation of new lawyers, says Kahn-Fogel, are hampered by 50-year-old textbooks and underpaid law teachers who often skip classes in favor of private legal work. What further compounds the problem is that judges, prosecutors, and defenders earn rock-bottom salaries. Few lawyers are willing to work for such meager pay, and the ones that are willing tend to be inexperienced lawyers who are prone to corruption.

In the absence of warm bodies with J.D.s, Africa’s villages and criminal courts are increasingly turning to paralegals. Based on the model of the Paralegal Advisory Service founded 12 years ago in Malawi to address the attorney shortage, paralegal programs have spread across Africa and beyond. “Realistically, the paralegal movement is the most viable alternative to provide justice in the short term,” says Thomas Geraghty, who directs Northwestern Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. “That’s why it’s so critical.” The use of paralegals is encouraged in the Lilongwe Declaration on ­Accessing Legal Aid, a set of guidelines that Geraghty helped to draft and that were approved early this year by the United ­Nations.

DLA Piper’s pro bono arm, New Perimeter, is among several nonprofits promoting the paralegal trend. Since 2010, New Perimeter has trained 200 paralegals in tiny Namibia alone, and the organization has developed a training manual that might serve as a model for paralegal programs throughout Africa. “These are not paralegals as we know them,” explains New Perimeter director Elizabeth Dewey. “They’re really leaders in local communities who serve as citizen-advocates.” Some of the problems that paralegals typically confront in Africa are wife beatings, the seizure of widows’ property by their families, inhumane prison conditions, and the indefinite detention of accused parties without the benefit of a trial.

Of course, Africa’s lawyering gap is not only felt in rural clinics and criminal court. Even the best-trained African commercial lawyers can sometimes find themselves unfairly matched in negotiations with foreign investors. Some pro bono programs aim to bolster lawyers’ skills by improving the curriculum at law schools. Others train midcareer lawyers, or offer advice on crucial transactions.

In Tanzania for the last three years, DLA Piper has spearheaded the teaching of legal drafting at the University of Dar es Salaam Law School by lawyers from an array of major London law firms, as well as in-house counsel from General Electric Corporation and Barclays Bank.

The nonprofit International Senior Lawyers Project aids in that effort, and also provides continuing legal education for corporate practitioners throughout southern Africa. And in ISLP’s signature approach, it advises directly on the drafting of major natural resource contracts in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Mozambique.

Some legal advocates would like to see such efforts more widely replicated and funded. Supporting “law and development” was fashionable before Africa first drifted toward autocracy. But “since the Ford Foundation worked on this issue in the sixties, no one has really focused on it,” says Sara Andrews, who serves as senior international pro bono counsel at DLA Piper.

While it’s too soon to judge the efficacy of nonprofit programs to boost legal capacity, Pro Bono Institute CEO Esther Lardent says the effort is sorely needed. “You see a lot of [pro bono work aimed at] improving laws in fragile nations,” she says. “Without enforcement, none is necessarily meaningful. You can have the best constitution in the world, and if you don’t have lawyers to enforce it, it’s a bit for naught.”

But with Africa’s pressing shortages of everything else, including food and water, is a shortage of attorneys all that important? ISLP senior executive adviser Jean Berman responds: “There’s a growing consensus that without rule of law you cannot address the urgent issues of poverty. Well, for the rule of law you need lawyers and lawyering.”