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There's a push for young lawyers to practice in rural America

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Posted at 10:49 AM, Jan 31, 2023

The Instagram page of John Paul Svec has three photos. In the first two, from seven years ago, he’s a high school kid holding a bow and a rifle. That third photo, from six years later, shows what might keep him in a small town. It’s his letter of acceptance to the University of Nebraska College of Law.

The snapshot of Nebraska mirrors that of the nation. A recent American Bar study found the country’s biggest counties typically have a dozen or more lawyers for every 1,000 residents. But nearly half of America’s counties – typically the most rural and remote – have fewer than one for every 1,000.

Richard Moberly is the dean at the University of Nebraska College of Law. When his state saw a lack of rural doctors, the medical college developed a rural training track to set up students in areas of need.

“About 60% of those students ended up going back to those communities. So, we're hoping for the same,” Moberly said. “A lot of the older attorneys, especially, have worked with the people in that community for a generation and know that, if no one can step in to their shoes, those people are really going to lose out on the services that lawyers provide.”

“Here in Wahoo, I believe there are three offices. Ours is the largest,” Svec said.

Wahoo may be a small town, but it’s actually among the better-off towns in Nebraska. Svec is one of 42 lawyers in the county. In the next county over, where Svec grew up, there are five.

“You could have someone come in and let's say they need estate planning and then, 'Oh, hey, I also have this.' You know, completely different issue,” Svec said, “It’s good that Nebraska has started a program like this. But I can’t help but think that Nebraska is not the only one that is struggling with this.”

It’s also not the only state with solutions. Colorado’s Rural Virtual Practice Program matches new lawyers in Denver with experienced lawyers in outer counties. Indiana University is one of several with a rural justice initiative, similar to Nebraska’s.

The hope is that the current generation of law students and graduations fill the gaps of today and preview potential careers for the lawyers of tomorrow, perhaps by posting on Instagram for the first time in six years and showing a triumphant stone on a country path.

“I probably put in well over 100 hours studying for the LSAT. That moment the letter came in and that I found out that I had gotten accepted was just such an incredible moment, you know, I just had to tell people about it,” Svec said.