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Rotunda Report
  • Rotunda Report
    October 23, 2023

    Wisconsin's Legal Ghost Towns

    Wisconsin is home to dozens of communities that don't have enough attorneys, limiting access to justice for residents. Learn more about what the State Bar is doing to address this shortage.

    Devin Martin

    Spooky building in dense fog

    Oct. 23, 2023 – Do you live or practice in a “legal ghost town?” There are more of them than you may think. More than 60% of Wisconsin’s lawyers are in the state's three urban counties – Milwaukee, Dane, and Waukesha. There are several counties in the state with fewer than 10 lawyers, and many more with fewer than 20 lawyers each. When a rural area no longer has enough lawyers, vital legal needs go unmet and access to justice is jeopardized.

    With many existing Wisconsin lawyers approaching retirement age, more and more communities are at risk of losing access to legal services. As attorneys retire, there aren't always younger ones to take their place. Rural Wisconsin simply doesn't have enough attorneys.

    One way the State Bar is working to address this shortage is through the Greater Wisconsin Initiative, encouraging attorneys across Wisconsin to consider living and working in underserved rural areas.

    Devin MartinDevin Martin is grassroots outreach coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    Another way is through education, engagement, and support of members at events like the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference (WSSFC). WSSFC tailors its educational programs to the needs of solo and small firms and is a great resource for attorneys interested in exploring what it might be like to work in or hang their own shingle in a small town. WSSFC attendees regularly give feedback that the conference is an extremely valuable (and family-friendly) way to keep up to date with issues that affect them most.

    Finally, the State Bar supports legislation that would create state loan assistance repayment programs (LRAPs) that entice attorneys to start or move their practice to rural areas where they are needed.

    In past legislative sessions, bills have been introduced that would have created pilot programs through the Public Defender Board that would pay up to $20,000 per year of qualifying student loans to private bar attorneys who take at least 50 public defense appointments in certain rural counties. The proposed program would have created the first LRAP program in Wisconsin while also targeting two other pressing needs within our state's justice system: the need for more attorneys to establish practices in rural areas across the state, and the pressing need for more private bar public defenders in those areas. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation did not pass and has not yet been reintroduced into the legislature, but conversations continue between legislators and the State Bar lobbyists to ensure the issue does not disappear.

    A Wisconsin rural attorney loan repayment program could help bring lawyers to counties that need them and public defenders to unrepresented clients, but lawmakers also need to hear from constituents in the legal community to make it happen. Send a message to your legislators on addressing the rural attorney shortage by using the Advocacy Network today.

    What You Can Do: State Bar of Wisconsin Advocacy Network

    Advocacy Network

    State Bar members are encouraged to send a message to their lawmakers expressing support on legislative topics which positively affect the legal system using the Advocacy Network. Pre-written email messages are editable to suit your own thoughts and opinions, and will help to demonstrate the breadth of support for policies that prioritize access to justice. You can also "Choose Your Own" to craft messages to any of your elected officials, from President of the United States down to your local municipal officials.

    Don't forget to subscribe to the Rotunda Report and follow us on X (formerly Twitter) to stay informed and get involved in the legislative process.

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