Ryan Wheeler, graduating from law school in Atlanta this month, needs a job.
Clay County, a rural southwest Georgia community without a full-time, private-practice attorney, needs all the legal help it can get.
A match made in heaven?
Despite the job-search difficulty facing the newly minted graduates of Georgia State, Emory, the University of Georgia, Mercer and other law schools, few will end up practicing in rural Georgia, where legal representation is sorely lacking.
New lawyers — saddled sometimes with $100,000 in student debt — can’t afford to practice where people can’t afford to pay them. Plus, the rural lifestyle doesn’t always appeal to urban-bred attorneys.
While the poor across Georgia struggle to get legal help, the challenges are amplified in rural areas with greater poverty and higher unemployment rates. And, unlike in metro Atlanta, rural Georgians may have to travel upwards of 50 miles to find an attorney.
State, federal and bar association officials talk periodically about ways to boost rural legal representation. They eye subsidies and loan-forgiveness programs that have increased the number of doctors practicing in rural areas. Money, though, particularly with post-recession austerity, is hard to come by.
By law, criminal defendants who are poor must be represented. But thousands of Georgians who need help with divorce, Medicaid eligibility, collections fraud, child custody or other civil cases can’t afford legal representation.
Some get free help from the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit offering aid outside Atlanta.
“There is such an inability to help people so in need of legal services. It’s frustrating,” said Cheryl Griffin, a circuit-riding Legal Services attorney in Albany whose caseload has doubled the last five years. “It leads to a legal system where people feel they don’t have a voice.”
Wheeler, who’s on track to graduate May 17 from Georgia State University with $40,000 in law school debt, can’t envision practicing in a place like Fort Gaines, which has no traffic light or fast-food restaurant.
“It’s not that it’s less worthy. It just doesn’t jive with my personality,” he said.
‘Real grim out there’
Wheeler, 33, is well aware, though, of the employment challenges that await new lawyers. One of every three 2012 Georgia graduates who passed the state bar exam hasn’t found full-time work, according to the American Bar Association. While job prospects increased slightly from the previous year, the overall unemployment rate for Georgia attorneys — 11.5 percent — is well above the overall state rate.
Emory University, with 73 percent of its 2012 law grads fully employed as lawyers, topped the Georgia placement list. At UGA, 69 percent of grads had jobs. About two-thirds of Georgia State grads were employed too, the ABA reported.
“It’s real grim out there,” said Wheeler, who’d like to open a solo practice in Atlanta handling personal-injury, DUI and landlord-tenant disputes. “I don’t have anything lined up.”
The recession hammered the legal profession. Firms cut back hiring and laid off attorneys. Or they outsourced legal research and document preparation to non-lawyers. Online, do-it-yourself legal forms further eroded attorney employment.
“The market has been tough since 2008 for law school grads,” said David O’Brien, director of legal career services at the UGA School of Law. “But there is still a lot of need for legal representation. Whether the market can support paying for lawyers is a different question.”
In Clay, 36 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four. The school system is the county’s largest employer. Many residents cross the Chattahoochee River into Alabama to work at a chicken plant 45 minutes away.
Only 3,156 people live in Clay, 175 miles south of Atlanta, and the population is declining. Even if they could afford a lawyer, the pickings are slim. Terry Marlowe opens the only Fort Gaines law office just one day a week.
“It’s a very limited market,” said Marlowe, who works most days in Albany, 75 miles away. “People there just don’t have a lot of money. If somebody is looking to go to a rural area like Fort Gaines and make a really good living, well, that’s not going to happen.”
Griffin visits Fort Gaines on the first Wednesday of every month. She handles 50 to 60 cases at a time across nine counties.
Her clients, including Lem Battle, pay nothing. Battle, 48 and jobless, needed a divorce. Griffin helped him get one a year ago with a restraining order against his wife and without alimony payments.
Battle, with Griffin by his side at the Clay County Public Library, said, “She’s like an angel to me, like my guardian angel.”
$41K vs. $145K
Most law school grads don’t go into public-interest law, like Legal Services, and most don’t go into rural America. Albany, Bainbridge, Valdosta and Waycross, for example, count only one UGA 2012 law school grad. About 105 of UGA’s 229 graduates from last year work in metro Atlanta.
“I wouldn’t envision that very many people from large, suburban towns would be interested in going to rural areas where they have no family connections or footholds to get a law firm started,” said Henry Balkcom, the newly elected probate judge in Quitman County who left an Atlanta law firm in 2006 to return home to Georgetown. “I’m sure that some lawyers would forgo a high-dollar career for work like Ms. Griffin’s, but not many.”
Legal Services attorneys start at around $41,000 a year in salary and get some loan-forgiveness assistance. The annual mean wage for an Atlanta attorney last year was $145,010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nationwide, though, the median starting salary for lawyers continues to decline from $72,000 in 2009 to $60,000 in 2012.
“If it were not for my loans I would love to be a rural practitioner,” said GSU’s Josh Ryden, a Newnan resident who will graduate next year with more than $100,000 in grad and undergrad debt.
The federal government subsidizes doctors, nurses and dentists to work in underserved communities. Could a similar program work for lawyers? South Dakota, for example, will soon start a pilot program to subsidize 16 lawyers with $12,000 a year provided they stick around for five years.
In Georgia, though, there’s little talk of additional government or bar association assistance for rural lawyers. Superior Court Judge Joe Bishop has asked the General Assembly for money to hire part-time legal help for people who can’t afford an attorney and try to represent themselves. No luck.
“When you talk about people being represented in a civil case by a lawyer, or putting a doctor on the ground to look after sick babies, the politics are such that it would be difficult to do,” said Bishop, who circuit-rides a seven-county region of Southwest Georgia.
Law schools make varying efforts to steer grads to rural areas. At UGA, for example, the Rural South Law Society connects students with rural lawyers and politicians who encourage grads to consider underserved areas.
For the most part, though, the rural poor get by with pro-bono legal assistance, do-it-yourself kits or the likes of Cheryl Griffin, who started her Wednesday in Quitman County with a grandmother seeking legal custody of a granddaughter.
At the library — a non-threatening environment that attracts clients — Griffin unspooled a litany of her cases that might have ended badly without access to an attorney: the mother of two kids seeking a divorce from an abusive husband; the elderly, little-educated lady threatened by a collection agency; and the Medicaid recipient wrongly evicted from a nursing home.
“It’s never a dull moment,” Griffin said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.