Kansas Supreme Court justice tackles state’s severe shortage of rural attorneys
Chief Justice Marla Luckert created the Rural Justice Initiative Committee to find rural Kansans much-needed legal help
Chief Justice Marla Luckert said the lack of attorneys in rural Kansas areas was at a crisis point. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Eighty percent of all active Kansas attorneys live in six urban counties, leaving Kansas rural communities struggling to find legal help. The newly created Rural Justice Initiative Committee plans to tackle the issue, with the goal of attracting attorneys to practices in rural areas.
In Kansas, there’s a ratio of two attorneys per 535 residents in urban areas, and a ration of one attorney per 808 residents in rural areas, according to the Kansas Judicial Branch. Wichita and Hodgeman counties have no attorneys at all, and five other rural counties have only one practicing attorney in the area. Eleven rural counties in the state have only two practicing attorneys in the area.
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert created the committee Thursday with an executive order. Luckert said the lack of attorneys constituted a crisis, damaging the lives of rural residents.
“We have to recognize that there is not access to justice, and the system of seeking redress for those grievances is unbalanced because it’s financially inaccessible, or individuals have no lawyer or otherwise lack the resources to get the information they need to navigate the complex system and procedures of redressing that grievance,” Luckert said.
The 35-member committee, headed by Justice K.J. Wall, will collect data on the legal needs of rural populations, make recommendations about existing Kansas rural attorney recruitment projects and study demographic trends. At the end of 18 months, the committee will report back to the Supreme Court with its initial recommendations.
The six counties containing most attorneys are Douglas, Johnson, Leavenworth, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte. The attorney shortage isn’t the only shortage rural Kansans struggle with. With 57% of the state’s population living in these six urban counties, rural areas are left without medical workers, veterans and other young professionals who are drawn to urban areas.
Luckert said young attorneys were overwhelmingly drawn to larger cities with bigger social scenes, such as Kansas City and Lawrence. According to data from the Kansas Judicial Branch, there are only 1,578 practicing attorneys available for the 1.25 million Kansans living in the other 99 counties across the state.
Committee members said they would have to address social factors that prevent young attorneys from moving to rural areas, such as the lack of shopping centers, activities and fewer romantic prospects.
“Good luck,” Luckert said. “It’s a big task.”
Committee member Ashley Comeau, an attorney practicing in Plainville, said she had firsthand experience with this, moving to Kansas City as a young attorney.
“Practically speaking, outside of the practice of law, if you are a young, unmarried person fresh out of law school, you significantly decrease your dating chance in rural Kansas. I couldn’t get to Kansas City fast enough,” Comeau said.
Comeau only moved to rural Kansas after marrying her husband, whom she met at a small town festival. She said she would still be practicing law in Kansas City had she not met him.
“There just aren’t that many young people in rural Kansas as you’d like to see,” Comeau said.
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