Georgia Supreme Court Justice Nels Peterson Georgia Supreme Court Justice Nels Peterson
Photo by John Disney/ALM

The long-running and worsening shortage of lawyers in rural areas has challenged the profession’s most prominent minds. A Georgia Supreme Court chief justice and a State Bar of Georgia president targeted the gap in recent years only to find it would not budge. A new idea emerged at the “Eliminating Barriers to Justice” conference held at Georgia State University College of Law Wednesday.

The idea: Teach people to do more without a lawyer.

“If we’re looking to expand access to justice, we have to think about access to justice as being more than access to a lawyer,” Georgia Supreme Court Justice Nels Peterson told a full house during a panel discussion.

The lack of lawyers for people who need help with civil matters in underserved areas is about more than law; it’s about economics, transportation, health care and education, the justice said. People in the South Georgia counties with no lawyers, and the many others with only a handful, have more needs than just legal, he said.

“This is such a thorny issue. There are people with real legal needs who simply can’t afford to pay a lawyer,” Peterson said. “For most of the people we’re talking about, you are not competing with King & Spalding for their business.”

Peterson would know. He practiced at King & Spalding between clerking for Judge William Pryor Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and serving as chief legal adviser to two governors. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Peterson to the Georgia Court of Appeals in January 2016 and the Supreme Court in 2017. Peterson is also a Harvard Law School graduate and a prolific legal writer.

On Wednesday he shared the stage with a woman from Albany who represents the state bar leaders’ hopes to help close the justice gap. If the new solution to access to justice is “do it yourself,” she would seek to be the guide.

Laureen Kelly is a lawyer, but that’s not really why she was there. She created and expanded a law library in the Daugherty County Courthouse, where she works daily providing research and assistance to people who can’t find or can’t afford a lawyer. She serves on the State Bar of Georgia Access to Justice Committee, which has won a grant to address the rural lawyer shortage. The plan is to use the grant to expand Kelly’s library and make it a pilot project for other parts of the state to copy.

If people in Atlanta or other cities don’t fully understand the needs of rural areas, Kelly seeks to be the translator. When people asked why the state can’t simply provide more legal aid lawyers, Kelly explained that often those who come to her for help do not meet the low-income requirements for legal aid help, but they don’t have the money to pay a lawyer either. Or they do meet the guidelines, but they have a need that legal aid lawyers aren’t allowed to handle such as divorce. Or the legal aid lawyers are already overbooked.

When someone asked why people in underserved areas don’t just use their computers and broadband internet to get help online, Kelly explained than many of the people who walk into her second-floor library don’t have laptops and tablets. A significant number of them can’t read or write, she said.

“They literally need someone to sit with them, pull up the forms and tell them ‘your name goes here,’” she said. Sometimes they have other needs to address. She talked about providing food for a diabetic who was about to faint from low blood sugar in the midst of dealing with a stressful legal problem.

With the pilot project underway, Kelly’s library is adding space and resources. She now has an assistant to help, along with a cadre of passionate volunteers she has recruited. “They say it’s addictive,” she said.

But “do it yourself” law with help runs into another potential problem: unlicensed practice of law, which is illegal.

Charlie Lester, a past president of the state bar and chairman of the bar’s Justice for All task force, told the conference that the bar is going to have to address the “unlicensed practice implications” in order to promote the law library model.

While Kelly is a licensed lawyer, not every librarian or volunteer would be.

Lester noted that many courts routinely see 60 percent to 90 percent of parties unrepresented.

“We’re never going to have a system that provides a lawyer for everybody,” Lester said. “There are not enough lawyers, even though a lot of people say there are too many, and there probably are.”

Still, with DIY and help from Kelly’s law library model, Lester said the goal for access to justice can be 100 percent.