We’ve talked for many years about how some rural areas of New Hampshire are in short supply of some services that are prevalent elsewhere. For example, there are some parts of the state without broadband internet access. Rural areas may not have access to the same types of health care and this includes legal services as well. Some counties have populations of lawyers that are graying but not growing. The new president of the New Hampshire Bar Association, Lisa Wellman-Ally, is launching an initiative aimed at recruiting lawyers to practice in underserved areas. She joined me last week to talk about this and other issues in the profession.
How big are these disparities in New Hampshire and what is the practical effect then for a resident or business that is in one of these rural areas?
There was a legal needs study that was sponsored by the New Hampshire Bar Association and other organizations in the state and only about six percent of the civil legal needs of this state are being met. Some of these needs exist outside the metropolitan area where people are isolated from access to justice not only geographically but physically. Some just cannot get over the mountains, and I cannot tell you how many clients I have that don’t have transportation to get to court. These people are underserved and neglected by the mainstream legal people out there. When the attorneys in this state start to age and some of the attorneys in these rural areas are ready to retire, there are no people coming in. This creates a growing need for local access to attorneys.
You practice in Claremont, right? If I were a resident, say in Claremont, where there aren’t as many lawyers as there are in Concord or Manchester, and I needed help with a living will, how would the relative lack of lawyers affect me?
Well, for example, if there wasn’t a local attorney you’d have to travel to Concord or Manchester. That’s fifty miles and on a good day, with good weather you can make it in an hour. That becomes a burden if you’re elderly, sick or if you don’t have a car. It’s one thing to ask a friend to drive you to pick up your groceries at the local Walmart or to take you downtown to your doctor’s appointment. It’s quite something else to ask someone to transport you an hour for an appointment to meet with an attorney and perhaps come back a second or third time. If you had an ongoing legal issue it could become quite onerous to try to arrange transportation. If you do have your own transportation, gas is quite expensive these days. It becomes very prohibitive at this point and some people are faced with the decision do I meet with a lawyer or feed my kids today. The fact that you don’t have an attorney right down the street can really jeopardize your rights.
Before setting up your practice in Claremont you had worked in New York City. You had described practicing in that city as “practicing in Hell” and practicing in New Hampshire as “practicing in Heaven.” In trying to bring more lawyers to rural New Hampshire is it as simple as saying you’re going to enjoy this much more than a big city?
That’s part of it. There’s a difference in the mentality of practicing in a big city like New York versus practicing in New Hampshire. The glory of practicing in New Hampshire is that there’s this collegiality and this professionalism and friendliness from attorneys. You don’t see somebody as a rival, you see them as someone who can help you. I can’t serve everyone that needs services in my area and by having other attorneys available down the road it’s like having another friend available, someone who can promote the practice and civility.
If the initiative continues to bring more lawyers into these rural areas then you might get a lawyer that you already know from your neighborhood or town?
That’s one of the things I think is very important. Attorneys that come to these rural areas become part of the community. I’ve lived in Claremont now for twelve years, and I’m part of the community now. My kids went to school there, I’m part of the credit union board, I see people at the grocery store and in the Walmart that I’ve represented. These people have become my friends, and that’s how you build a client base. Wouldn’t you much rather take your problems to somebody that you know instead of some stranger that you’ve never met? For example, if someone comes to me and says they have a problem with the school, I’m familiar with the local high school and the community. It’s helpful to have someone that knows the other attorneys in the town and the local customs of the court. It’s helpful to know the judge and to have credibility that you have built from being a part of the community.