History & Purpose of the Rural Virtual Practice Program
Recognizing the need to address the changing profession and striving to create innovative, new mentoring opportunities, this pilot program is a joint collaboration between the Colorado Supreme Court and the Colorado Bar Association.
Colorado Attorney Demographics
In 2015, the Colorado Office of Attorney Registration approved admission for 1,798 attorneys. Of these admissions, 949 of these attorneys are considered “new” attorneys in their first 3 years of practice. There are 7,493 lawyers actively practicing in Denver itself. With a current estimated city population of 570,901, this means that 1 in every 76 people in Denver is a practicing lawyer. With these demographics, it is no surprise that the 2015 national unemployment rate for new lawyers is a whopping 15.5%.
The Legal Services Corp. says 1 legal aid attorney is available for every 6,415 low-income Americans, which means that 4 out of 5 of those people’s civil legal problems are not being addressed. More specifically, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were approximately 118,670 indigent people in Denver County in 2013. With 7,493 actively practicing attorneys, that calculates to a ratio of 1 attorney for every 16 indigent people. In comparison, there were 23 registered attorneys in Montezuma County in 2015 with an estimated indigent population of 4,884. In Montezuma County, therefore, the ratio is 1 attorney for every 211 indigent people. Similar statistics prevail for rural areas throughout the state of Colorado.
Nearly 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but the New York Times says just 2 percent of small law practices are in those areas. Currently, many lawyers still practicing law in small towns are nearing retirement age, often without anyone to take over their practices. And without an attorney nearby, rural residents may have to drive 100 miles or more to take care of routine matters like child custody, estate planning and taxes. For people of limited income, a long drive is a logistical hardship, requiring gas, a day away from work and sometimes an overnight stay. And census information shows that rural communities are disproportionately poor.
All this creates a “justice gap,” with legal needs going unmet because potential clients can’t find a lawyer, or they can’t afford the lawyers they can find.
Unfortunately, new attorneys are often only aware of the difficulties associated with choosing a rural law practice after graduation and mirror a general trend toward Americans concentrating in cities. One such difficulty is the problem of high student loan debt. Debt prevents brand new lawyers from buying an entire practice outright, one traditional way to get started. And then there’s love and marriage. New lawyers want to be in a place where it’s easy to meet people, especially if they’re single. Or if they have a significant other or spouse, the other barrier is wanting to make sure they have opportunities for their significant other as well.
There is a clear need to capitalize on the benefits of both having a rural practice and living in a metropolitan area to create a pipeline of new rural/mountain practitioners.
Cost of Law Practice Management
Modern representation is defined as practicing law in innovative ways that meet the client’s needs and budget. The concept of modern representation originated as a means of closing the access to justice gap – providing legal services for the 60% of civil litigants statewide currently proceeding with their cases without lawyers. What has emerged is a business model that provides affordable legal services for this large portion of the population while simultaneously enabling a lawyer to build a sustainable and fulfilling law practice. The Rural Virtual Practice Program is a means to introduce the benefits of this business model to clients and lawyers in rural areas, since many of the tenants of modern representation are naturally aligned with the goals of the Rural Virtual Practice Program.
As stated, a primary focus of modern representation is to provide affordable legal services. From the client’s perspective this is done by offering alternative fee arrangements such as unbundled services (or limited scope representation), flat fees, contingency agreements, sliding scale rates, payment plans, capped fees or a combination thereof. For a lawyer to maintain a sustainable practice offering such fee arrangements, the lawyer must maximize efficiency and keep overhead to a minimum.
A significant way to reduce overhead is by maintaining a “virtual office”, which exists solely on a computer with a secure portal that both the client and the lawyer can access anywhere with an Internet connection. A virtual office allows clients and lawyers to not only share documents and correspondence through the computer but to meet with each other face-to-face through low-cost video applications such as Skype or Zoom.
With the Rural Virtual Practice Program, the client can be introduced to the secure portal and video conferencing at the local practitioner’s office, letting the client gradually transition from meeting with a “live” lawyer to meeting with a “virtual” one from the comfort of their own home or a room at a local library. A virtual office benefits both the client and the lawyers by reducing travel time and costs, expanding the number of lawyers people in rural areas can chose from, minimizing the need for office space in the city and rural area, and eliminating the cost of paper supplies and postage.
Pilot Program Goals
The goal of the Rural Virtual Practice Program is to match new lawyers in Denver with an established lawyer in a rural or mountain community in a mentoring, clerkship and/or co-counseling relationship. Once paired with each other, the participants will:
- Work on client matters together
- Follow a structured mentoring curriculum to provide practical opportunities for discussion and professional growth
- Assess opportunities for physical or virtual law practice in that location
- Connect with the local legal community (bar associations, legal organizations, etc.)
- Meet the local judiciary and staff
- Explore the region and broader community, including demographics and legal needs
- Discuss succession planning and employment options for new lawyers
The purpose of the pairings is to introduce the new lawyer to rural/mountain practice, while allowing the new lawyer to maintain the majority of his or her time in the Denver metro area through the use of virtual practice tools. It also gives the established lawyer time to get to know the young lawyer. If it’s a good match, the established lawyer may be able to offer an associate or junior partner position at a competitive salary to account for the fact that the new lawyer already knows the office and the community.
Positive program outcome objectives are as follows:
- Improved access to lawyers for rural/mountain residents by increasing the number of available attorneys and providing affordable legal services
- Increased succession planning for established rural/mountain lawyers considering retirement in the next 3 to 5 years
- Well-developed virtual practice skills for participants and the local judiciary
- Creation of pipeline for developing rural/mountain lawyers
For more information please review the Colorado Rural Virtual Practice Program Handbook by clicking the link.