AALL Annual Meeting Session Recap- Legal Deserts in America: What is Meaningful Access to Justice for All?

Stephanie Huffnagle, a faculty member at Erie Community College in Buffalo, NY, was one of this year’s recipients of a Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals (PLLIP) grant for the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Annual Meeting.  Stephanie wrote the following recap.

“Legal Deserts in America: What is Meaningful Access to Justice for All” proved to be an informative and worthwhile session. The session not only provided statistics on the current state of affairs in terms of lack of access to legal services, but also highlighted the reasons behind this reality and presented concrete examples of programs aiming to fill the justice gaps throughout the country.  The presenters were all stakeholders in the battle for justice for all, and they provided their first-hand insight into the issue of legal deserts.  

Lisa Pruitt, Professor of Law at UC Davis, discussed her research, which served as the backbone to the legal desert information in the 2020 ABA Profile on the Legal Profession.  The findings of Lisa and her research team echo and expand on the idea of the justice gap, showing specifically where the gaps exist based on the number of attorneys at the county level.  Lisa explained that legal deserts are those counties where there are either no lawyers, or only one to two lawyers.  The research shows that 40% of counties have less than one lawyer per 1,000 people.

While Lisa focused on the why and some general tools to respond to the situation, her colleagues discussed ongoing recruitment and training programs designed to combat lack of access and legal deserts.  

Suzanne Starr, Director of Policy and Legal Services at South Dakota Rural Recruitment Program, outlined South Dakota’s response to the issue.  South Dakota initiated a rural attorney recruitment program back in 2013.  This is based on a financial incentive to get attorneys into rural areas.  It was interesting to hear how the program was started and to recognize the influence that one person/a small group of people can have by being change agents.

Miriam Childs, Director of the Law Library of Louisiana – Louisiana Supreme Court, connected the idea of legal deserts with income level in her state, highlighting the relationship between poverty and a lack of access to attorney services.  Louisiana’s response to this is LEAP, the Legal Education Assistance Program, which educates public librarians on legal reference and resources, and trains them on how to provide legal information without providing legal advice. 

The speakers were certainly well-versed on the topic based on their research and direct involvement in legal services/legal recruitment programs. 

If you did not have a chance to attend the live session and are a AALL member, I encourage you to watch the presentation on-demand.  At the very least, a review of the legal desert information in the ABA 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession is in order.  You can view legal desert statistics for each state in the report, and the 2021 report is now available too, https://www.americanbar.org/news/reporter_resources/profile-of-profession/.

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