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Rural Midwest Has Epic Lawyer Shortage

About midway across the United States, you hit a 72-mile length of I-80 in Nebraska that is the longest stretch of straight road in the United States. A dozen businesses along that route call it "the crossroads."

Nebraska is also a crossroad for some attorneys deciding where to go in their careers. It offers plenty of opportunities because there are no lawyers for miles and miles. If there were any place left for a country lawyer to settle on the American plains, this could be it.

Rural America Is Running Out of Lawyers

Large parts of rural America are running out of lawyers, according to National Public Radio. Nebraska has fewer lawyers per person than the smallest state in the U.S., by area or population. Indeed, there are 11 Nebraska counties with no lawyers at all.

"It's a symptom of the so-called brain drain in rural America," says reporter Grant Gerlock. "Young people often go away and don't come back, leaving small towns short of doctors, dentists, lawyers and even farmers."

Because of the shortage, bar associations, law schools and local governments have tried to attract attorneys with various incentives. South Dakota, for example, was the first state to offer a $12,000 annual subsidy in exchange for a five-year commitment to start a full-time practice in a county with less than 10,000 residents. In Kansas, the state bar association teamed up with local law schools to provide internerships with rural judges and lawyers.

Nebraska is even recruiting high schools students become rural lawyers. Under one program, students receive a tuition scholarship and future admission to the University of Nebraska law school.

What's Rural Law Practice Like?

Unlike many attorneys at big city firms, small town lawyers have the opportunity to handle a wide range of legal matters. At least in terms of a general practice, a country lawyer is your father's lawyer.

"I wanted to do a little bit of everything, and I just guess I didn't want to be married to the job as soon as I got done with the rigorous law school program," said Nebraska attorney Tyler Pribbeno who does business, criminal, family, estate planning, guardianships, conservatorships, juvenile, probate and real estate. In some counties, private attorneys sometimes serve as part-time prosecutors because the governments have limited resources for smaller populations.

Rural practice may not appeal to lawyers looking for the big city pay or prestige, but it has a rustic appeal and some rewards. A rural attorney won't have to pay big-city real estate prices or fight freeway traffic.

There are long distances to travel, however. Between about Shady Bend Road and Lincoln, where the I-80 stretches out so straight, an attorney may drive a long way before seeing a gas station. But then gas is only $2 a gallon for regular.

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