Public hearings were held this week on legislation that aims to tackle the shortage of attorneys in rural Wisconsin.
All too often the overwhelming cost to attend law school leads many Wisconsin lawyers to seek higher paying jobs in urban areas after law school. This leads to a large number of counties in Wisconsin to be underrepresented by attorneys. In extreme cases, there may only be a handful of licensed attorneys in the county – a judge, district attorney, a corporation counsel, and private attorney.
Senator Patrick Testin (R–Stevens Point) and Representative Ron Tusler’s (R–Harrison) companion bills AB567/SB467 aim to address this dire situation. The legislation would create a student loan payment pilot program for private bar attorneys who accept at least 50 public defender appointments per year in rural counties throughout the state. If an attorney meets these requirements, they would be eligible for loan repayments of up to $20,000 per year.
The State Bar of Wisconsin support efforts that will help to mitigate the attorney shortage in much of the state and make law school more affordable to Wisconsin residents.
“Attorneys have a deep commitment to ensuring access to justice for all citizens,” says State Bar President Paul Swanson. “However, many find that the rising cost of a legal education forces them to pass on job opportunities in public service.”
The State Bar is dedicated to improving these issues, and one way the association is demonstrating this commitment is by organizing bus trips to underserved areas of the state. By connecting attorneys who are willing to relocate to areas of need, as well as assist them in reaching their professional goals.
The first year of the bus trip, the State Bar focused on the northeast counties bordering the UP of Michigan. This past fall, the tour went to the northwestern region of the state. All of these areas include counties that would qualify as underrepresented counties under AB 567/SB 467. Next year the State Bar plans to visit western Wisconsin and is visiting several more counties that meet the criteria outlined in this legislation. So far, through the efforts of the State Bar, three attorneys have relocated to rural areas of Wisconsin and are practicing law in the community.
Encouraging attorneys to settle in rural areas to practice benefits the whole community. Professionally, what starts as a criminal defense attorney often turns into a general practice attorney to address the needs of the community as they inevitably expand their practice to estate and family issues, among others. Settling into a community professionally will often lead to involvement in other aspects of the local community as well.
This is the first time a bill addressing this issue has been introduced, and the State Bar applauds the effort of both legislators in their attempt to improve the situation of both law school debt and attorney shortage in Wisconsin’s rural communities. There are several other ways to address these problems, such as an increase in the private bar rate, but this is a first step.
“The $40 an hour rate is the lowest rate in the nation,” according to President Swanson. “By the time private bar attorneys pay their overhead and costs, they often take a loss financially by taking these cases.”
If this legislation passes it will bring about much needed relief to attorneys and communities throughout much of the state.