State Bar Paving Way for Rural Lawyers 1/25/17 01/25/17 2:48:44 PM
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Thomas Maul, outgoing NSBA president, presents Richard Moberly (left) and Lyle Koenig (right) with an award for their work on RLOP at the Nebraska State Bar annual meeting in October.
State Bar Paving Way for Rural Lawyers
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
If you live in Omaha or Lincoln and need a lawyer, you can just go downtown and walk around and you’ll see any number of options in various office buildings. The same thing could happen in the suburbs.
Or go online and Google “attorneys” and dozens of options will pop up.
However, beyond the state’s metropolitan areas, the options are fewer. In nearly a dozen counties there are no attorneys.
And that is a problem.
The need for lawyers in rural areas was the subject of a conversation between Richard E. Moberly, interim dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law, and Beatrice attorney Lyle J. Koenig, a Wayne State graduate. Since there already was a program to address the need for health care professionals in rural areas – the Rural Health Opportunities Program – they decided it was time for RLOP – the Rural Law Opportunities Program.
“Once Lyle and I looked into this we realized it’s an access to justice problem; it’s an economic development issue,” Moberly said. He talked to people at UNMC about the RHOP program, and agreements were reached with Wayne State [College], Chadron State [College], and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“It’s a win for a lot of people,” Moberly said. “The State Bar is excited about it.”
The problem is severe, he emphasized, adding it can be quantified.
“There’re eleven counties that have no attorneys, and 20 additional that have three or less,” he said. “That includes judges.”
RLOP students will receive free undergraduate tuition as long as they maintain the required 3.5 GPA at their college – ideally each school will provide five openings per year with five alternates. Students must then meet a minimum LSAT and other minor law school applications criteria, and are then automatically admitted to the University of Nebraska College of Law.
There are other perks as well. For instance, as RLOP participants, students will visit Nebraska’s law school for guest lectures, special court proceedings, observation of classes, and networking activities. Nebraska Law administrators and admissions representatives will also visit the campuses of participating schools at least once an academic year to meet with students one on one. Between their junior and senior years, RLOP students will have the opportunity to participate in rural Nebraska internships.
Nebraska College of Law has the lowest in-state tuition of any state law school in the Top 100, according to Moberly.
“Financially they should be able to make it work,” he said, eliminating one argument that has kept some law school graduates in larger markets.
Thomas M. Maul, a Columbus attorney and immediate past president of the Nebraska State Bar Association, said he started to address the need in October 2015 after he took office as president of the Bar Association. He had spoken to Koenig, then he ran into Moberly at a continuing education event in Beatrice. More talks with the schools followed.
“It was easy to start talking about it,” Maul said. “Wayne State was really excited about it.”
Once Wayne was on board, Chadron was anxious to be a part of it and Kearney was quick to follow. “It’s a great thing for those colleges because it gives them a chance to attract the top students,” Maul said.
The Nebraska State Bar Association had worked for years to get lawyers into western Nebraska, he said. In addition to the counties without attorneys, lawyers who are nearing retirement serve other areas.
The problem is not unique to Nebraska, and other states have tried to address the problem, but “no one has ever done an RLOP. No one has ever gone that direction,” Maul said.
For three years, the Bar has matched Creighton and Nebraska students with interviews in rural areas and placed about 12 of those recent law school graduates.
“It has its challenges,” Maul said of that effort. RLOP will take students from greater Nebraska, get them a “wonderful education, and return them to a place they know.
“I think we are going to find communities providing an incentive to get them to come back,” Maul said. He said they also plan to work with the Nebraska Community Foundation. “I believe it’s going to be a big thing.”
Joseph F. Bataillon, senior United States district judge and the new Nebraska State Bar Association president, voiced his support for the new program. “There is a lawyering crisis in greater Nebraska – no lawyers in far too many communities. Legal services are essential in these communities just as in larger communities across the state. RLOP is an important step toward filling this vacuum.”
No one, it seems, is more excited than Koenig,
“There’s no question that we’re underserved,” Koenig said of the state’s rural areas. “It’s moving along very well at Wayne State College.”
A Wayne State spokesperson confirmed the school has already hosted a gathering for some candidates and has awarded the first four scholarships and selected four alternates. Koenig is hoping about 15 prospective attorneys per year can be added to the program. “The more people we can get in the pipeline the better,” he said.
Attorneys are needed for transactional work, litigation and estate planning. Koenig said a lack of attorneys translates to a lack of access to justice. “We need lawyers to do everything” from farmers’ estate planning to incorporating a business.
The incoming freshmen are still six to seven years from graduating with a law degree, and more rural lawyers can be expected to retire or pass away as RLOP moves along. Still, the process to address the need is underway, and Koenig is looking forward to getting some future lawyers in the pipeline.
“That would be a terrific thing,” he said. “I think we’ll be gaining on the problem.”
Hailed as a “win-win” by all those involved, Moberly is truly upbeat about RLOP.
“We’re excited to partner with these colleges and keep great Nebraska students in Nebraska,” he said.
For more information regarding the Rural Law Opportunities Program, please go to: law.unl.edu/RLOP.