Lawyers a luxury in rural Georgia

State has plenty of attorneys, but few serve outside metro areas

It’s the third week of the month, and the reading area looks more like an office waiting room as the 10 people each seek a few minutes of his time. It’s a common situation in McRae, accentuated by a poor economy that has tightened access to legal help and driven an increase in cases in areas such as bankruptcy.

Moon’s problem: She’s being sued for a defaulted credit card account she says she never opened.

To her relief, Mike Tafelski, the lawyer, tells her not to panic and agrees to represent her.

“It’s so much off your mind when you get somebody to help you,” she says later, bristling at the idea of being seen as a deadbeat. “I’m 73 years old and I still work every day except Sunday. I pay my bills.”

For Moon and others who came to the library on a recent Wednesday, Tafelski, an attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program, is their sole lifeline to legal help.

Attorneys are a rare species in McRae. Just a handful practice in this Middle Georgia community some 165 miles southeast of Atlanta.

The situation in McRae underscores a long-standing problem for much of rural Georgia: Dwindling populations and the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs over several decades, coupled with a lack of economic diversity, leave little room for a thriving services sector.

Lots of lawyers, but ...

Not that Georgia is in short supply of lawyers. There are more than 28,200 of them actively practicing in the Peach State, according to the State Bar of Georgia. But roughly 19,500 of those lawyers — 69 percent — practice in the core metro Atlanta counties of Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett.

That leaves about 8,700 practicing lawyers sprinkled across Georgia’s remaining 154 counties. In fact, 35 of those counties have fewer than four practicing lawyers, and some have none at all.

“As populations continue to decline in many rural parts of the state, what they have is such a small population that they don’t support much economic activity of any kind,” said Harvey Newman, a public management and policy professor at Georgia State University.

Lawyers, like other service professionals, tend to cluster in the state’s metro areas, which provide a more dependable stream of clients and, thus, income.

Medical doctors have several programs that forgive portions of their loans for agreeing to serve poor and rural communities. But new lawyers, who on average graduate with loans of $71,400 to $91,500, depending on whether they went to public or private law schools, have fewer such incentives.

Recession’s impact

The down economy has only magnified the lack of access rural residents have to legal representation, say attorneys with the Georgia Legal Services Program. The 39-year-old organization provides legal aid to low-income Georgians outside of metro Atlanta, which is serviced by Atlanta Legal Aid.

The economy also explains the spike in calls for help that the GLSP’s 70 field attorneys have received from people seeking to resolve problems ranging from bankruptcy and housing foreclosures to food stamps and denial of unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, funding constraints — another product of the poor economy — loom. For example, the interest earned on lawyer trust accounts stemming from real estate deals is collected into a fund overseen by the Georgia Bar Foundation.

But the fund’s contribution to the GLSP’s $14 million annual budget has dropped by half from $2.8 million in 2009 to $1.4 million this year as the housing market continues to lag, said Phyllis J. Holmen, the GLSP’s executive director. “We expect it to drop by another half in 2010-2011.”

Meanwhile, the GLSP’s caseload is expected to rise.

“It is going up dramatically. When you’re in the office, the phone does not stop ringing,” said Tafelski, who works in the GLSP’s Macon office, which covers a 23-county swath of Middle Georgia. Each week he visits one of the four counties on his watch — Dodge, Montgomery, Treutlen and Telfair, where McRae is the county seat — to meet with existing clients and, depending upon the situation, take on new ones.

“I remember when I first started circuit riding 2 1/2 years ago, I’d have maybe two people coming to me and nobody else,” he said. “Now you’re going from two clients a month to 15 to 20.”

Not affordable

Access to attorneys is just one factor that explains the jump, said Tim Floyd, a Mercer University law professor and member of the Georgia Civil Justice Committee, which was empaneled by the state Supreme Court to examine the civil legal needs of Georgians.

“It’s partly a matter of affording lawyers,” Floyd said. In a report released last year, the committee found 1.65 million low- and moderate-income Georgia households can’t afford an attorney.

Several of the clients who met Tafelski at the library said they couldn’t afford a private attorney for their cases, which ranged from child custody and bill collection disputes to divorces and the division of property they entail.

Cost explains why many more litigants are coming in without representation in civil matters and the increased reliance on public defense attorneys in criminal cases, said Gene Johnson, Telfair County’s Superior Court clerk.

“We do have a lot of people coming pro se,” Johnson said, explaining that they did not have legal representation. On a recent “motion day,” when the court hears uncontested filings, nine of the nine were pro se, he said.

“So many people are going that way because they can’t afford to pay $1,500 to a lawyer,” he said.

Cost always an issue

The GLSP, which closed more than 11,000 cases last year, up from 9,506 in 2007, doesn’t have the staffing to accept every civil case. And because of its government funding, it is prohibited from representing people in criminal matters. Those cases would often be referred to its network of private attorneys who could take them on for free or for a reduced rate.

But those lawyers are becoming more resistant as the economy is hurting their paying clients’ ability to pay, Tafelski said.

“Cost is always an issue, and it’s certainly become an issue in a bad economy,” said Josh Bell, an attorney in Whigham, a South Georgia city about 40 miles north of Tallahassee.

Bell, who has two pro bono cases pending, says more people are asking for breaks on his rates, which include a $1,200 retainer fee for an uncontested divorce and $175 an hour for other services.

“I can see there’s certainly been some push-back,” said Bell, who started his own firm in November.

“I’ve got to make a living, and I want to provide for my family, too,” he said. “But I make exceptions. It has to be a real egregious situation, but I do make exceptions.”