U of I College of Law creates solution for lawyer scarcity in rural Idaho

Chloe Baul//February 17, 2023

U of I College of Law creates solution for lawyer scarcity in rural Idaho

Chloe Baul//February 17, 2023

Around 40% of all counties in the United States — 1,272 of 3,141 — have fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, and as a result are sometimes referred to as legal deserts, according to a 2020 study conducted by the American Bar Association. To ease this problem in Idaho, The University of Idaho College of Law launched the Idaho Heritage Project to provide financial support to students serving a semester internship or externship in Idaho’s underserved rural communities.

lawyer rural Idaho
University of Idaho College of Law building in Moscow. File photo

According to College of Law Dean Johanna Kalb, the project is in partnership with many local district bar associations and will raise money to provide funds that support and allow students to take those opportunities.

“Many of the people who have had the most satisfying and rewarding law careers are those who are in these small towns and rural communities,” Kalb said. “They have these lives of service to the communities that they’re in, and that is incredibly fulfilling. That’s one of the things we hope our students experience.”

The Idaho Heritage Project

Across Idaho, there are a variety of issues fueling the lawyer scarcity in rural communities. One problem is the need for more students from rural areas to seek a legal education and realize that a law career is possible and necessary in rural communities.

According to Kalb, the College of Law’s outreach efforts will help encourage students to seek careers in the industry, so they can understand the impact of rural law careers and bring the knowledge they obtain back to their communities.

“One thing we’re doing this year is really getting out and traveling to colleges, even the community colleges, around the state,” Kalb said. “Our goal is to get in front of the students and talk to them about the fact that law school is accessible for them.”

Another reason, Kalb added, is that once students are in law school, employers who are present at career fairs overrepresent counties with a larger legal presence, such as Ada County. The first stage of the Idaho Heritage Project is to address this issue, as rural law firms don’t necessarily have the funds to pay students to work for them.

“The path is often for students to go to some larger firms or organizations that have a presence in the Treasure Valley, that have regular recruiting practices,” she said. “Our small towns and rural communities — where most solo practitioners don’t have the capacity necessarily to come out and visit with us and interview on campus — it’s harder for our students to find those relationships.”

Michele Bartlett, chief alumni relations and development officer at the College of Law, provided insight into how law students will contribute to rural communities as a result of the project. For example, the college arranged for a student to be able to work at Henry’s Fork Foundation and live in the Ashton area for the summer.

“They will be supervised by general counsel or an attorney to do contract work,” she said. “Very hands-on and embedded in the experience, with the goal and the hope that they’ll want to find a permanent position in the area or at the foundation.”

The third, and larger, problem is the issue of law school affordability. Salaries in small towns and rural communities can’t keep up with graduates who are starting their careers with thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

“Our students are graduating with about $80,000 in debt,” Bartlett said. “We’re hoping that we’ll be able to build up legislative and other support and make it financially possible for graduates — who really want to commit their lives to these rural parts of the state — to have some of their loans forgiven as part of their commitment serving in these areas.”