Cotton Field Worth County Georgia.
A cotton field in Worth County, a major cotton producing county in Georgia and home to 4 lawyers. (John Disney/Daily Report)

A shortage of rural lawyers is causing concern among leaders of the legal profession.

In Georgia over the past year, increasing attention has been paid to some simple math that doesn’t add up. Most of the lawyers, like most of the dollars, live in Atlanta. Most of the people—particularly the poor—are spread out around an expansive state, many miles away from the keepers of the keys to justice.

“It’s just a shame that in this day and age we haven’t figured out a solution to the problem,” said State Bar of Georgia President Patrise Perkins-Hooker. She has put the issue on the agenda for the midyear meeting of the bar’s board of governors on Saturday, with hopes of taking a proposal to the Georgia General Assembly after its 2015 session opens next week.

Here are some facts that will fuel the discussion.

The five counties that make up metropolitan Atlanta have most of the state’s 30,000 lawyers—70 percent, according to State Bar of Georgia’s membership records. Those same counties have about 35 percent of the population, according to the latest U.S. Census. The remaining 154 counties have only 30 percent of the lawyers, but 65 percent of the population.

While the urban counties are richer in lawyers, they are also just richer. Metro Atlanta has 28 percent of the state’s population living below federal poverty limits, while the other 154 counties have 72 percent of the state’s poor.

The courts appoint lawyers for the poor in criminal proceedings through the public defender system, which has had its share of problems with heavy caseloads and funding shortages. But in civil matters, access to lawyers is much less certain.

Georgia Legal Services provides free civil representation to the poor and the elderly in those 154 nonmetro counties from 10 offices spread around the state. But its funding took a huge hit from the Great Recession. More than half of the organization’s $12 million budget comes from the federally funded nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which provided $6.8 million in 2013. Grants and donations make up the rest, and that is where the pain of the recession continues.

The interest rate nosedive devastated a low-profile but important source of funding for legal aid groups: IOLTA, interest on lawyers’ trust accounts. These earnings from money held temporarily for clients by lawyers are passed to the Georgia Bar Foundation, which is designated by the Georgia Supreme Court to distribute IOLTA funds for legal aid and other charitable causes.

Georgia Legal Services’ current budget shows it receives less than $300,000 from IOLTA funds, about a tenth of its pre-recession amount. As a result, Georgia Legal Services has had to cut its number of lawyers from 72 to 58, several of them part-time, according to the agency’s executive director, Phyllis Holmen.

The organization has secured some new grant funds. Members of the state bar have stepped up contributions, giving a record $567,000 last year. But funding still lags well behind pre-recession levels.

At the same time, legal aid lawyers are seeing an increase in the number of people eligible for, and in need of, their services in rural areas. So the lawyers prioritize by the most urgent cases, much like doctors in an emergency room. Some matters they can’t handle at all. For every person they help, they have to turn away more. Every rural legal aid lawyer has 13,000 potential clients, based on the poverty population of the area they serve, according to Holmen.

Starting annual salary for those lawyers is $41,500. The top of the pay scale is under $150,000 for the executive director, who has worked there for 41 years. In recruiting lawyers, Holmen said she makes them two promises: “You won’t make a lot of money, but you get to keep your soul.”

Fulfilling as their work may be, legal aid lawyers are the first to admit they cannot meet all the legal needs of the state’s rural communities.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson sounded an alarm over the urban versus rural lawyer disparity in his 2014 state of the judiciary address to the General Assembly last February. Citing bar membership reports, Thompson said 62 counties have between one and 15 lawyers, with six counties having no lawyers at all. “We must take steps to correct the imbalance,” he said.

In June, on the day she started her one-year term as bar president, Perkins-Hooker picked up that challenge. Speaking to the bar’s board of governors, she admonished all members to donate to Georgia Legal Services. She called for bar leaders to work with the legislature to offer student loan debt repayment programs for law graduates who commit to working in underserved areas. She pledged to visit underserved counties—particularly the six lawyerless ones—and work with economic development officials to provide inducements for lawyers.

“Next year, we’re not going to have six counties with no lawyers,” she predicted.

Loan repayment goes only so far

Six months later, Perkins-Hooker said the issue is more difficult and nuanced that it first appeared. The counties that are underserved by lawyers have a long list of other needs. She noted they have high poverty levels, low educational attainment and low literacy rates.

“We’re going to have to incentivize people to come,” she said. In addition to lobbying for student loan debt repayment, she said she plans to work with state and local economic development officials to offer free office space for new lawyers in the underserved areas.

On Saturday she’ll be asking the bar’s board of governors to endorse a law school loan repayment plan under a proposed Attorneys for Rural Areas Assistance Act that she hopes will ultimately be approved in the 2015 legislative session. The act would pay back debt for young lawyers who commit to working in rural communities for at least five years and to donate a portion of their services to poor clients.

Other states with a shortage of rural lawyers have launched similar programs. News reports around the country have featured initiatives in Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Kansas, Iowa and Utah. They’re all aimed at reversing the trend of new lawyers flocking to urban centers, lured by increasingly complex business transactions and record starting salaries in big cities. The American Bar Association also has highlighted the rural lawyer shortage and efforts to address it.

Student loan debt repayment programs have worked for years to encourage young doctors to hang their shingles in rural areas, even inspiring the popular 1990s television series “Northern Exposure,” about a doctor in Alaska.

But the “Northern Exposure” model doesn’t work the same way for lawyers because indigent clients aren’t covered by third-party payers like health insurance companies and federal programs for the poor and elderly.

Holmen, the Georgia Legal Services Program executive director, noted there is no Medicaid for legal services. So even if young lawyers move to rural areas and have their student loan debt repaid—and even if the state bar can persuade the local chambers of commerce or county governments to give them free office space—they can’t get paid if their clients don’t have money to hire them.

Pro Bono Work Helps Bridge Gap

One way Georgia Legal Services tries to bridge the gap in rural areas between the limited number of lawyers and the growing needs of their client base is with pro bono work donated by private attorneys. That list is maintained under the leadership of Michael Monahan, pro bono director for the Georgia Legal Services Program. He is also the attorney who staffs the state bar’s Access to Justice Committee.

Monahan has been keeping a detailed report for several years on the distribution of lawyers in Georgia, using bar membership statistics. He maintains a color-coded map of the state showing areas underserved by lawyers on a website called georgiaadvocates.org.

Monahan started his career as a legal aid lawyer to migrant farm workers in South Georgia. He is quick to acknowledge the difficulty of encouraging new lawyers to locate in those underserved counties. “Economics sometimes makes those decisions for them,” he said. “Earning a living in a small town isn’t easy.”

Monahan shared his current spreadsheet on lawyer distribution, updated in July. The report still shows six Georgia counties with no lawyers, plus 26 counties with fewer than five and 30 counties with five to 15. Monahan said for purposes of the report, he does not count lawyers who are serving as judges, prosecutors or public defenders, because they are not typically available to donate their time for pro bono services.

Monahan and his staff run nine pro bono stations around the state, coordinating the work of volunteer lawyers in those underserved counties. At the moment, the list includes 1,300 volunteer lawyers in rural Georgia. It’s not nearly enough, but it helps fill some gaps.

Only one of the counties on Monahan’s color-coded map is in North Georgia. That’s Dade County in the Appalachian foothills of the far northwest corner of the state, near Chattanooga. Residents there benefit from dual-licensed lawyers from Tennessee who donate volunteer hours, he said.

The other underserved counties are scattered across South Georgia. Georgia Legal Services staff attorneys travel the state, in some cases meeting with clients one day a month at a string of small-town public libraries. The counties in the southwest also have the benefit of dual-licensed volunteer lawyers from Dothan, Ala., he said. The pro bono list for deep South Georgia includes a few dual-licensed Florida lawyers, Monahan said. Together they help some of the clients that the staff legal aid lawyers have to turn away.

Overwhelming Caseload

The most overwhelming caseload at the moment is likely that of the Albany office in the heart of South Georgia. Already serving the sprawling southwest side of the state, the Albany office had to take on clients from southeast Georgia when the organization closed its Valdosta office after the recession.

Working from the Albany office, Cheryl Griffin travels the southwest portion of the state, and Tina Battle travels the southeast, sometimes crossing hundreds of miles in a day, through fields of cotton and peanuts and groves of pecans and pines to see far-flung clients. They roll into rooms normally reserved for reading to children, pulling file cases on wheels.

Sometimes the people they ultimately help don’t initially recognize their problem as a legal matter. They just know their bank accounts have been frozen by a collector on a debt they didn’t know they had, or that the home they thought they were buying was never legally owned by the seller. Sometimes their children have been expelled or not allowed to attend public schools. Often a few well-placed phone calls and emails from a lawyer will clear up a matter far short of going to court, they said.

Another legal aid lawyer, Michael Tafelski in the Piedmont office and formerly in the Macon office, has developed expertise helping low-income clients fight garnishments and frozen bank accounts.

He said sometimes the collectors don’t have a legal right to the debt. Sometimes the debt was never signed by the person being garnished. Often the money is being illegally seized because creditors are not allowed to freeze bank accounts of people living on Social Security or veterans benefits—but they do it anyway. He said he’s had success helping people recover their money by suing—or threatening to sue—banks for illegally garnishing accounts.

Because the need is so great, the legal aid lawyers prioritize the cases they take, focusing on safety, shelter, food and education. For example, legal aid lawyers don’t handle divorces unless domestic violence is a factor, Griffin said.

A legal aid lawyer in the Macon office, Ira Foster, has found so many low-income and mostly minority children in need of help getting into public schools that he’s made that a specialty.

A Grandmother’s Plight

He shared a handwritten letter from a grandmother who described her 9-year-old grandson crying at night because he wasn’t allowed to go to school. When the boy came to live with her, the school said she couldn’t enroll him because she didn’t have legal guardianship. Foster provided a form from the Georgia Board of Education that allows grandparents to simply sign an affidavit saying the child lives with them.

After the boy started school, the grandmother wrote about the ordeal and how it had strained the child’s emotions and her health. When the school finally called to say he could enroll, she wrote, “I felt a tremendous burden lifted off of me.”

Foster said he’s disturbed by the number of times legal aid lawyers have to help in situations that wouldn’t be problems for families with greater means. “If we don’t keep kids in school, the next step is prison,” Foster said. “I’m wondering what’s happening to those low-income people that don’t know about Georgia Legal Services.”

He also worries about those that the legal aid lawyers have to turn away. “We just don’t have the resources to serve all of them.”

While legal advocates can make a case for increased funding, the bar president doesn’t believe that’s the solution to the rural lawyer shortage. “Legal services doesn’t have enough people. They don’t have enough money. And they are restricted from taking certain cases,” Perkins-Hooker noted. A legal aid lawyer traveling a circuit cannot take the place of an attorney working and living in a community, she said.

That’s why she has high hopes that the potential rural lawyers act can attract even a few young lawyers to underserved counties.

“It’s a multifaceted problem, and it’s going to take a multifaceted approach,” Perkins-Hooker said. “This may only be a start, but my goal is that someone will be there this summer.”