Clark McClellan graduated from the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1990 and like many new lawyers, followed the bright lights of the big city to Phoenix, signing on to pay his dues at a large law firm.
But McClellan, a native of Vernal in northeastern Utah, quickly learned life at a big law firm wasn’t everything that he’d imagined it would be. He moved home to Utah, making a few stops along the way early in his career before he realized that he followed his heart back home to serve the rural community he’d grown up in.
Today, McClellan is an 8th District Court judge, serving Vernal and surrounding communities in his hometown of just under 11,000 people. It’s a lifestyle choice that he believes more attorneys could find as rewarding as he has, since setting down permanent roots in Uintah County in 1997.
“I think that rural Utahns are greatly underserved (by the legal profession),” said McClellan. “There is much more room for people to practice here. For some reason, folks want to live on the Wasatch front. For the life of me, why would you want to live in the traffic and that hectic life. It’s much easier to live here and there’s a huge need for attorneys in the rural areas. Some of the older attorneys are retired and slowing down. There are not that many young ones taking their place —and I wonder why?”
McClellan’s question is an ongoing one for the broader legal community, as both law schools and bar associations brainstorm ideas for how to connect people in rural areas to legal services.
Ensuring Utah’s rural areas have access to high-quality attorneys was one component of a 2015 report issued by the Utah State Bar titled “Report and Recommendations on the Future of Legal Services.”
Among the suggestions for improve access to justice for all in the future is a recommendation to investigate and promote providing incubators or other support for new lawyers who wish to establish practices in rural areas of Utah to provide basic legal services and underserved clients. The exploration “should include seeking grants and other private funding for the specific purpose of helping lawyers establish viable practices,” the report states.
Continuing the pipeline of providing attorneys to rural areas isn’t an issue only in Utah, but across the country. Five years ago, LexisNexis released data that showed that in 2012, firms with fewer than 50 lawyers were heavily concentrated in urban and suburban areas, with only two percent choosing to practice in rural regions.
The LexisNexis data was cited in a subsequent New York Times article that found although nearly 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, that two percent of attorneys choosing to practice there in some cases is not enough to serve rural residents —some who end up driving 100 miles or more to find an attorney for issues as common as taxes, estate planning or child custody.
Attention to the issue at the time —as well as a continued spotlight on the issue today —is one reason the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates passed a resolution encouraging governments and bar groups to address the access-to-justice issues in rural parts of the U.S.
While the problem in Utah isn’t as drastic as in other parts of the country, facilitating access to justice in rural areas is one reason the S.J. Quinney College of Law has worked in recent years to expand its training offerings to rural parts of the state, said Jess Hofberger, director of the professional development office at the law school.
Hofberger and Lori Nelson, director of alumni relations, recently visited the Cache County Bar Association and the Uintah Basin Bar Association —and are actively trying to facilitate more gatherings of rural attorneys in other parts of the state. (If current rural practioners are open to giving a new lawyer a start in their area, Hofberger can help to connect rural attorneys to new graduates).
Closing the access-to-justice gap is one reason some lawyers embark on a career serving rural areas. But others offer a host of other reasons why launching a law practice in a less-populated area brings its own rewards, said McClellan.
“Good things happen in rural Utah. The people are collegial. They are professional. They are caring,” said McClellan. “We have very dedicated and caring attorneys that are very confident who work hard for their clients and show up everyday.”