Chadron was a stop on two tours of the state by officials representing various state agencies and organizations earlier this month.
The Nebraska State Bar Association’s President’s Caravan brought Judge Joseph Bataillon to Chadron with several colleagues the same day that University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green stopped to visit with several individuals in the community.
Bataillon, president of the NSBA, was accompanied by Ronald Volkmer, a professor of law at Creighton University, and Richard Moberly, the dean of the UNL College of Law, as they promoted access to justice across the state.
Nineteen counties in Nebraska have three or fewer attorneys, and 13 have none at all. The NSBA is making a targeted effort to remedy that situation. Residents of those underserved counties are attempting to navigate the legal system on their own or with the help of internet legal services, often making mistakes and getting themselves into more trouble, Bataillon said.
“And it’s only because there are no attorneys in their counties,” he said.
One of the projects they have launched is essentially a job fair for attorneys, giving them a chance to meet with nearly two dozen law firms, including some outside of the Lincoln and Omaha area.
But another initiative that will have an impact closer to home is the newly created RLOP – Rural Law Opportunities Program – modeled after the successful RHOP for health professionals. Five incoming freshmen at Chadron State College, as well as one senior and one sophomore, have been accepted to the RLOP program and will have a spot at the UNL College of Law once they complete their undergraduate studies.
The program is also available at Wayne and the University of Nebraska-Kearney. The idea came from an UNL alumnus who was concerned about the attorney shortage in rural Nebraska, Moberly said.
“The schools were really excited about it as soon as we mentioned it to them,” he continued.
The program will help encourage newly-minted attorneys to return to the rural areas they grew up in to practice, and it’s incumbent upon the state’s two law schools to do a better job getting the message across to students that practicing in a smaller area is another kind of success.
“They can have a real, varied practice and professional life (in rural areas),” Moberly said. People make choices and rural practice is just as valid of a choice as urban practice is.
“It’s important for them to make a conscious decision,” Bataillon said.
In the meantime, for residents of rural areas with limited legal resources, the NSBA has started an online service of its own. Nebraska Free Legal Answers, found at www.Ne.FreeLegalAnswers.org, is staffed by Nebraska attorneys on a pro-bono basis and is available to those who meet certain qualifications regarding age, assets and household income.
“People who can’t afford a lawyer to begin with are really at a loss,” Bataillon said. “This is a great program for both the people who need this service and for the lawyers. Lawyers have an obligation to do pro bono work.”
Once qualifications are determined, users are allowed to post a question about a civil legal problem, which is posted to a queue for attorneys to review and respond to. For those who are not qualified to use the online service, the website will direct them to information and other services, such as private bar referrals, self-help and legal aid options.
The law schools at both Creighton and UNL are sponsor Legal Clinics to provide third-year law students with experience and assistance to individuals. At Creighton, for example, the College of Law has a longstanding tradition of global engagement, studying the Nuremburg Trials and taking mission of ministry trips to the Dominican Republic to assist the poverty-stricken with legal needs. In the Dominican Republic, the law students often are dealing with economic refugees from Haiti, Volkmer said.
This year, the Creighton College of Law will add an Immigrant and Refugee Law Clinic to its rotation as part of its Justice for our Neighbors collaboration. Eight students will work in the clinic, assisting some of the 40 percent of individuals who do not have attorneys during their immigration proceedings.
Outreach to rural areas of the state was also Chancellor Green’s mission during his trip to Chadron.
Much of the conversation revolved around UNL Extension, and Green called the university’s Extension program one of the most elite in the country.
“The Extension mission is equally important as academics, as a land grant university,” he said.
The university is set to break another enrollment record this fall, as it did last year, and is turning its attention to getting more students graduated in four years as a way to decrease the cost of education.