Rural justice initiative gathers input on legal services  

A rural task force formed about nine months ago to look at unmet legal needs in rural Kansas provided an update on activities at a recent meeting in Great Bend. 

A community roundtable chaired by Kansas Supreme Court Justice K.J. Wall, a native of Scott City, included attorneys and other legal professionals. The Kansas Rural Justice Initiative Committee became effective Dec. 1 with an order by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert. 

During the discussion, attorneys who grew up in small towns said when they went to college they did not think they would return to their hometown or go to a similar sized community. However, they found that there was an attraction. Barton County Judge Carey Hipp grew up in Goodland but then worked for about 20 years in a small firm near Great Bend before being appointed judge. 

Others also spoke about going to a big city but yearned to return to small towns whether to return to a farm or because they enjoyed their rural roots as opposed to urban life. 

They also spoke about the challenges of being a single attorney. 

Several communities have active chambers of commerce that do offer ways to network. Great Bend’s chamber of commerce was given high marks for what it does to help young professionals, particularly those who do not have local roots. 

Barton County’s average age per resident is 39, said local attorney Mark Calcara, adding that can lead to a misconception that rural communities do not have a young population. “We probably don’t talk about it as much as we should.” 

The hospital and medical services industry also brings in young professionals, for example, and that does help the dating pool for single attorneys. “It is not a spousal desert but that’s the perception,” he said. 

Several lawyers agreed that encouraging young attorneys to be active in community organizations is important to retaining them. 

Dodge City attorney David Rebein believes that younger lawyers in rural areas need an organization that could be an advocate and resource for them. That can serve them in ways that should go beyond recruiting. 

“All of us recognize there is a need to have an organization that is about us, speaks for us and is concerned with the issues,” Rebein said. 

He also said economic development organizations can also be a resource for young attorneys because those groups are also targeting industries that understand the importance of good schools, teachers, and accountants. Companies also value the availability of recreational opportunities. 

Several also spoke about the importance of building rapport with other attorneys regardless of age and that comes with in-person events whether in a courthouse or over lunch. Because tighter budgets and COVID-19 changed more hearings to a Zoom format that also hampered relationship building. 

The state’s two colleges with programs to educate attorneys—Washburn University and the University of Kansas—had representatives present who also said they are encouraging prospective lawyers to take a look at opportunities in rural areas. 

Shawn Leisinger, associate dean for centers and external programs and externship director with Washburn, said any initiative needs a grassroots approach working hand-in-hand with communities. Leisinger said one student will spend his last semester at a law firm in Salina where the student will get real-world experience while working with professional mentors. Stacey Blakeman, assistant dean of career services at KU, said the college has developed stipends to make resources available to spend a summer outside of the five most populated counties in the state. 

The committee also received subcommittee reports on information gathering and data collection, attorney recruitment and retention, and innovations and solutions from the perspective of judicial, legislative and community levels. 

Over the next 18 months, the committee is expected to study the general population trends as well as trends related to attorneys and other legal professionals who support court and court-adjacent programs. It will also look for differences in met legal needs related to population density. It will also look at recruiting and retaining professionals. Attorneys are necessary for matters involving disputes over health care, elder abuse and neglect that can include people of all ages, said Luckert, a native of Sherman County. 

In the December 2022 announcement she noted that litigation can have a dramatic impact on people whether it is evictions, foreclosures, debt collection, job terminations, denial of benefits and refuge from domestic violence or children who suffer from abuse. There are also consequences as a result of divorce. All of those matters happen in rural areas, too. Luckert said all people should have an equal ability to have representation to resolve conflicts and she added access to justice is not equal because of factors that might include lack of information or availability or lack of resources to hire a qualified attorney. 

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Once its task is completed the task force will submit its initial recommendations to the Kansas Supreme Court. 

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].