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Task force eyes dearth of rural lawyers

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    A task force has been set up to study the impact of a shortage of practicing attorneys in rural areas of New York state. Pictured is the Columbia County Courthouse on Union Street.
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    A survey indicates that practicing lawyers in rural areas of the state are in short supply and many are nearing retirement.
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    A declining number of attorneys in rural New York has led to a task force created to address the issue. (Jessica Hill/The New York Times)
July 4, 2019 10:02 pm Updated: August 15, 2019 12:57 pm


Columbia-Greene Media

A task force has been set up to look at the state of rural law practices across New York to determine if there is a lack of sufficient legal services.

New York State Bar Association President Henry M. Greenberg announced Tuesday the creation of the Task Force on Rural Justice to examine the issue. The vast majority of attorneys in New York state — 97% of them — live and work in either urban or suburban areas, causing concerns in the legal community, Greenberg noted.

“Research confirms what many attorneys in upstate New York already know — that there is an access to justice crisis in rural areas throughout New York and across the country,” Greenberg said. “NYSBA remains committed to ensuring access to justice for all New Yorkers, regardless of where they live, and the important work of this task force will go a long way toward enacting the necessary reforms to achieve that goal.”

The task force will make recommendations for potential changes in law and public policy to support law practices and make access to justice more available in the state’s rural communities.

While some rural areas of the state may have a lack of attorneys, Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said he does not believe it is an issue locally.

“I think Columbia County is very lucky to have a substantial number of highly qualified attorneys in most areas of justice,” Czajka said. “So although I recognize that may indeed be the case in some rural parts of upstate, I don’t think that is the case in Columbia County.”

However, Czajka added that there are some areas of law “that we really have no need for at present in rural areas,” such as securities law.

The state task force will examine the impact of rural attorney shortages on access to justice, the challenges of providing legal services in rural areas, and the needs of rural attorneys. The group will also look to identify solutions.

The task force will be co-chaired by Associate Justice Stan L. Pritzker from the Appellate Division, and Taier Perlman, a staff attorney at Albany Law School’s Government Law Center. Perlman is also the leader of the Rural Law Initiative.

In April, Perlman’s group published a report on rural law practices in New York state based on a survey of rural attorneys between August and October 2018. The survey found that the majority of rural law practices are comprised of either solo attorneys or small practices of two to five lawyers; many are “overwhelmed” by the volume of cases and limited resources, and have difficulty finding qualified attorneys to refer cases to.

Over half of rural attorneys are either at retirement age or close to it, according to the survey.

Dominic Cornelius, former public defender for Greene County and the current public defender in Columbia County, said he has noticed there is a shortage of attorneys in certain areas of law, but not others.

“I think that the attorneys who handle criminal matters generally have very significant case loads because the percentage of attorneys who handle criminal cases is small compared to the number of attorneys who handle other forms of law,” Cornelius said. “And there is a small number of attorneys who practice in the family court, as well. Most attorneys are practicing either personal injury and handle transactional matters such as business, taxes, real estate, things of that nature. You see the same names over and over in criminal and family court because there is such a limited number [of attorneys].”

Cornelius agreed with the survey’s finding that many rural, upstate attorneys are nearing retirement. The problem is especially acute in Greene County, he said.

“A lot of the attorneys who handle criminal matters in Greene County have retired so the pool has gotten pretty small,” Cornelius said.

He added that the problem is not a new one — there was a “significant shortage” when he began practicing in 1995.

“The number of attorneys handling those types of matters has always been a problem,” Cornelius said.

The study found that 74.3% of lawyers responding to the survey were 45 years of age or older, suggesting the problem may only get worse in the coming decades.

Andrew Howard, president of the Columbia County Bar Association, said he has seen an aging of the active attorneys in the county.

“I think one of the challenges that the Columbia County Bar has faced is that as attorneys have retired, at least anecdotally, it doesn’t seem that there is a new generation of attorneys coming in to replace them,” Howard said, adding that the aging of local attorneys mirrors the aging of the Columbia County population as a whole.

But while the state group has labeled the aging of rural attorneys an “access to justice crisis,” Howard would not go that far.

“I think certainly we do have qualified attorneys in Columbia County and in other nearby counties, and it doesn’t seem as if people are having trouble finding counsel — that hasn’t been my experience,” Howard said.

Terry McGee Ward with the Greene County Department for Aging helps obtain legal representation for seniors in the county ages 60 and up. There are dozens of older residents coming in for legal services. Many of them are seeking legal advice related to aging.

“In 2018 we served 74 seniors and the major topics are either elder care or elder law, which includes end-of-life decisions and things like that,” McGee Ward said. “They also want credit advice, advice on landlord-tenant issues, contracts and contract disputes, and billing issues as it relates to credit. Those seem to be the major issues we deal with.”