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News / Northwest

State bar looks for solutions as legal deserts worsen in rural Washington

By Emma Epperly, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 19, 2024, 9:43am

ST. JOHN — Feet up on his desk, leaning back in his chair in this small Palouse farm town, Rusty McGuire said he has a “boring office practice.”

His long days as a lawyer don’t usually involve suits, courtrooms or legal jargon; instead, each weekday McGuire drives to a different rural town, from St. John to Odessa, to Rosalia, to his hometown of Davenport.

Clients of the McGuire, DeWulf, Kragt & Johnson firm don’t make appointments; they stop by with a question or just to catch up.

Everyone knows on Thursday McGuire will be in his St. John office, where he spends the morning answering phone calls before slipping over to the Rialto Tavern for lunch, usually with his brother who lives just outside of town.

“It’s not all transactional,” McGuire said. “It’s not that same lifestyle as, ‘I’ve got a schedule and I’ve got to maintain it and I’ve got to get this many billable hours.’ “

He reads one client’s mail for them. Others just come by to chat. For most clients, McGuire’s firm has handled their legal needs for decades for their business, farm or family.

“It’s not all one-offs; it’s long-term relationship stuff,” McGuire said.

He’s also the only attorney in town.

Whitman County has 65 attorneys, according to the Washington State Bar Association. Lincoln County has 12. Pend Oreille has 14. Garfield County, the least-populated in the state, has three.

Spokane County has just over 2,000 attorneys.

Meanwhile, King County, home to Seattle, has more than 17,000.

For years, the Washington State Bar Association has been concerned with the state’s growing number of “legal deserts,” areas where residents struggle to access legal services.

Renata Garcia, chief regulatory council at the bar association, said the issue is far reaching.

“I think we have a shortage in many areas, specifically, public defense,” Garcia said. “There’s a real problem there, and you see a lot of people even going through family law matters, they self-represent.”

The farther an attorney has to travel to represent a client, the more expensive the case. In a divorce, if one person contacts all three attorneys in the area and does a consultation, the other spouse has to look farther away, adding costs.

The problem intensifies when it comes to public interest law. In Yakima County, defendants can wait weeks to be assigned an attorney, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported last year. There’s also a shortage of prosecutors.

Spokane County deputy prosecutors and public defenders are paid less than in most other counties in the state, including Stevens County, which is home to 49 attorneys.

To help solve the issue, the bar association created the Small Town and Rural (STAR) Committee that works with law schools and county bar associations to find solutions to the dwindling number of lawyers in rural Washington.

Many small counties contract with private attorneys from out of the area for public defense.

Carson Van Valkenburg, a Spokane attorney, has contracted with a number of rural counties to do public defense work.

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During law school at Gonzaga University, he worked for a firm that had rural county public defense contracts. He then spent a few years after graduation working for Pierce County before he heard of an opening on the Adams County contract and returned to Spokane to open his own firm.

Van Valkenberg likes getting to know the people in each county and building relationships.

“You can feel more, I guess, of a tangible impact doing a good job and representing people,” he said.

In recent years, counties have grown more understanding of the cost of running a firm and commuting out to court, he said.

“It does have to be worth their while,” Van Valkenberg said of attorneys traveling for the contracts.

A solution many counties have embraced since the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce travel for out-of-area attorneys is video conferencing for shorter hearings. Instead of driving three hours for a five-minute hearing, attorneys can log on from their offices in Spokane.

“That has eased some of the burdens of being there physically in person,” he said. “That has been a positive thing that has helped rural counties.”

The 1970s was a decade of growth for the legal profession with a 76% jump, according to the American Bar Association. Over the past decade (2013-2023), the number of attorneys has grown by 5%.

What those numbers don’t show are the retirements of the baby boomer generation, Van Valkenburg noted.

The Washington State Supreme Court approved alternative pathways to show competency and earn a law license earlier this year in hopes of both diversifying the legal profession and removing barriers to joining the bar. While the programs are still being implemented, people will no longer have to take or study for the bar exam.

The cost of law school has grown rapidly, on average by more than $5,000 a year, according to the Education Data Initiative. The average total cost is $220,335.

On top of that high cost, the student loan payments that follow can necessitate taking a job at a larger law firm over public service or practice in an underserved area, Garcia said.

One solution the bar association points to is the Law Clerk program. Washington is one of four states that allows bar admission through apprenticeship.

The program is most commonly used by people who want to pass their practice on to a family member or longtime employee who doesn’t have a law degree. Clerks work part time for the firm, practice under the supervision of their tutor and follow the program’s curriculum, which includes tests on each course throughout the four-year program.

There are 182 active lawyers who got their license through the program, with about 100 people seeking their license as clerks.

Benjamin Phillabaum, 46, wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he enrolled at Washington State University to study marketing, but the son of two lawyers was sure about one thing: He didn’t want to be an attorney.

“I had always told myself that I would never be an attorney because all they do is sit around and talk on the phone. And it seems so boring as a high school student,” Phillabaum said. “But, as I came to find out, most jobs when you get older, it’s a lot of just sitting around talking on the phone.”

Phillabaum started a career in banking and loved it, working his way up from a teller to commercial banking. Then came the financial collapse of 2008.

His mother, Cheryl Phillabaum, did legal work for banks and credit unions, so he approached her to see if she would consider supervising him through the law clerk program.

She agreed, and he began the program not long after.

“It’s definitely harder than I thought it was going to be,” he said.

As a 29-year-old, Phillabaum had bills to pay. He worked both at the law firm and waiting tables while studying.

By the fourth year of the program, however, he was largely managing his mother’s practice. He felt prepared for the bar examination and passed on his first try.

He took over his mother’s practice and has been busy since. A huge benefit of the program is the cost, a total of just more than $8,000.

“I didn’t want that weight on my back to be the decision maker for me,” Phillabaum said.

Now he sits on the board of the law clerk program. Phillabaum, like many Spokane lawyers who practice a niche area of law, travels for cases, including into North Idaho.

But the cost is a barrier for many potential clients.

“Three hours of travel two ways, every time you have a hearing, it gets pretty cost-prohibitive really quickly,” Phillabaum said.

Attorneys may reconsider taking cases in other counties due to complex and varied filing systems, he added. Unlike Idaho, Washington jurisdictions can use a filing system of their choice, meaning the same type of filing might be called something different depending on which court gets it, he said.

While many law clerks are family members of their tutor, the other common scenario is attorneys supervising longtime staff, who then inherit their practice.

Amanda Crossman, 40, has been a paralegal for PNW Law in Poulsbo for decades. She always wanted to advance her career, but as a young mom and wife, law school and the cost associated with it felt insurmountable.

“I went from hair school to law,” Crossman said of her educational journey.

Her boss, Alton McFadden, had seen her drive and asked Crossman if she’d consider the program.

She’s one year in and plans to take over the firm after passing the bar.

The law clerk program isn’t for everyone, though, Crossman and Phillabaum cautioned. It takes a driven self-starter to teach themselves the law while working. Tutors aren’t paid; instead, they pay the clerk for the part-time work they complete. Nearly all supervising attorneys have a pre-existing relationship with their clerk for that reason, said Kathrine Skinner, who manages the Law Clerk Program for the bar association.

The association also oversees limited legal licenses. In the area of family law, usually dealing with child custody and divorce, people often can’t afford attorneys or represent themselves. Garcia said expanding limited legal licenses for niche areas of the law could be another solution to alleviating the shortage.

“It’s about options,” Garcia said. “It might work for you, but it might not work for someone else.

“It’s about giving, not only those who want to become a lawyer different ways to do that, but also the public, the consumer, giving them different ways and opportunities to obtain the services.”

The STAR Committee agrees there’s no one solution to fixing the rural attorney shortage.

In 1989, when McGuire got a job at a law firm in Davenport, it was the only one he could get. He knew what rural life was like, growing up on a farm outside of St. John.

He became a partner at the firm in 1995 and began buying up firms in other small towns as attorneys wanted to retire. First it was Odessa, then Ritzville, then Rosalia and finally Colfax.

McGuire loves his clients, and he knows them well. He knew their parents and grandparents; the firm did their estates, agricultural business and real estate transactions.

People stop by after a day on the tractor or delivering a calf.

“We don’t have any stop lights in any of those towns, except for Colfax,” McGuire said. “It’s not that button-down.”

McGuire has waited for the right person to come across his path when hiring new attorneys, he said. His firm pays a similar rate to Spokane firms with all the sought-after benefits like retirement and health care.

That Spokane money goes further in a rural setting, McGuire pointed out, but that’s not why he thinks people should practice in these communities.

It’s the people.

“Most attorneys are one-off interactions,” McGuire said. “Ours is generational.”