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Student loan help could be key to addressing Ohio’s attorney shortage

A building with large pillars reads Mercer County Court House.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Ohio rural communities are struggling with a lack of attorneys, including in Mercer County.

Tom Lucente stands for a sentencing hearing at the Allen County Courthouse in late March, laying out a case for why his client should be given the minimal sentence.

He’s been doing criminal defense work like this in western Ohio for the last decade. In that time, he’s noticed fewer and fewer attorneys working in his region.

As the number of lawyers goes down, the amount of time spent in his car has gone up.

“Somedays, I put several hundred miles on my car driving from Van Wert to Mercer to Allen to Auglaize,” he said. “I've even had cases recently in Hancock and Defiance counties.”

Ohio has a chronic attorney shortage. Not just in western Ohio, but in small towns all across the state. A new law that goes into effect Monday hopes to be the solution: it's a program that will help those practicing in rural communities repay their student loans.

At the end of last year, lawmakers passed a billthat would help repay up to $50,000 for young attorneys who serve small towns. They need to stay in the community for at least three years, helping to fill court-appointed cases.

Stretched thin 

Ohio’s lawyers are concentrated in its cities. 72% of active attorneys in the state are in its six most populous counties – where less than half the population lives.

That leaves attorneys like Lucente with a lot on their plate.

“At any given time, I probably had 250, 300 open cases,” he said. “That wasn’t just criminal… I did whatever came through the door. But it can be heavy.”

With the rural lawyers stretched thin, it becomes difficult for small town judges to appoint counsel. They start to look to faraway counties for support, said president of the Ohio State Bar Association Dean Wilson.

A map of Ohio shows where a rural attorney shortage exists throughout the state. All of the counties are marked red, meaning they more than 700 residents per private practitioner, except for eight. Most of those counties hold major metropolitan areas.
Ohio State Bar Association
The rural attorney shortage is pervasive across the state. Young attorneys who participate in the state program will practice in areas that have more than 700 residents for every private practitioner in the county.

As a judge in Perry County, Wilson said his community sometimes has to pull from the major metropolitan areas to fill the gaps. But, those lawyers don’t always reflect the culture of his town, he said.

He said the local justice system needs to represent the values of its community – or else there are barriers to establishing trust and building relationships.

“If you've grown up in the community, you've practiced law in the community, then I think you have a much better chance of reflecting what those values are,” he said.

Financial barriers

Even for people who want to practice in rural communities, Wilson said the pay makes it tough.

“If you're going to set up private practice in a small community, you’ve got to carry malpractice insurance. You've got to buy the software to set your business up with. You have to pay a receptionist or a secretary to do your work for you,” he said. “Plus you've got to service a $98,000 debt. The economics simply don't line up that way.”

"Not only is it an access to justice issue, it calls into question our entire democracy."
Amy Ikerd, Mercer County assistant prosecutor

The financial situation is even worse for those who practice indigent defense – or legal services for those who can’t afford a lawyer.

Counties pay public defenders to represent those clients, and then the state reimburses 70% of those costs. Many times, it’s far less than what an attorney would make in private practice.

“The current compensation is just not worth it,” said Representative Brett Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, one of the legislators that introduced the Rural Practice Incentive Program.

Hillyer said counties are breaking their budgets trying to attract public defenders.

“It's going up like $1.25 million a month, just trying to find attorneys that are wanting to do this work,” he said.

Awaiting change

The shortage has hit Mercer County, where Amy Ikerd works as an assistant prosecutor.

Even though she’s on the other side of the courtroom, Ikerd said she’s worried about a shortage of public defenders. She’s afraid of what it could mean for Ohioans’ constitutional right to an attorney.

“Not only is it an access to justice issue, it calls into question our entire democracy,” she said. “You want to make sure that the scales are as balanced as can be. If you don't have defense counsel for them, then you don't have a level playing field at all.”

A judge sits behind a podium at a courtroom in Allen County Common Pleas Courthouse.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Tom Lucente presented a case in the Allen County Common Pleas Courthouse. He says it's harder for judges in rural western Ohio to find public defenders to fill court-appointed cases.

The county established a new public defender’s office – in hopes of increasing access. Lucente will lead the charge. But, he can’t do it alone.

The Rural Practice Incentive Program just might remove the biggest barrier for recruiting his colleagues, Ikerd said.

“It's just easier to pay back those loans in a major metropolitan area,” Ikerd said. “It's one of those pieces that’s fueling people moving away from the rural communities and into the larger cities.”

It will be a while before Mercer County gets that relief though. The program still needs to go through the budget and rulemaking process before it’s up and running.

Until then, Wilson said he’ll still be working hard to get young people interested in advocating for the state’s small towns.

“It's not just being an attorney. It's not just being a judge,” Wilson said. “It's giving back to your community.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.