Wake Forest Law Hosts Discussion: “Legal Desert…or Legal Oasis: Solving the Problem of Access to Justice in NC”

On Thursday, September 28, 2023, Wake Forest Law hosted a presentation and discussion titled “Legal Desert…or Legal Oasis: Solving the Problem of Access to Justice in NC” to educate students about opportunities in “legal oases” as well as general “smaller town” practice.

There to provide insight into the key challenges and efforts to tackle the problem of legal oases in North Carolina were Wake Forest Law alum and North Carolina State Bar President Marci Armstrong (JD ’83), Co-Executive Director of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism Jimbo Perry, Director for Incubator for Legal Practice & Innovation Mark Atkinson, and Wake Forest Law alum and Lawyers Mutual Claims Counsel/Relationship Manager Will Graebe (JD ’92). Dr. Alyse Bertenthal, Associate Professor at Wake Forest Law, served as the moderator of the discussion. Greetings were made by Wake Forest Law Dean Andrew Klein.

The presentation and discussion began with an introduction to legal oases and the barriers people face as a result. It was noted that in North Carolina alone, one half of counties are considered legal oases (once called legal deserts), meaning there is less than one lawyer for every 1000 residents. Sixty-three percent of North Carolina attorneys are concentrated in five North Carolina counties—Durham County, Forsyth County, Guilford County, Mecklenburg County, and Wake County—making it difficult for people in smaller counties to gain access to attorneys when they need them the most.

Wake Forest Law’s Assistant Dean of the Office of Career and Professional Development Francie Scott understands the importance of exposing students to the needs and opportunities in communities. “Our office is committed to helping our students pursue meaningful careers and find the unique intersection of their skills, interests, and values,” says Dean Scott. “This collaboration with the North Carolina State Bar and the Chief Justice’s Commission was the perfect chance to highlight potential job opportunities that are sometimes overlooked, while at the same time addressing the critical need for access to justice in North Carolina.”

So why are there legal oases? Why do attorneys not want to practice in smaller counties?

From a lower quality of life and lower pay, to a lack of opportunity and loneliness, life as a small-town attorney does not sound appealing to most. But, according to the panel of experts, its reputation is not built on facts.

“I think it’s a myth that you can’t make money in a small town,” Marci Armstrong, who lives in a region with a population of 12,000, says before adding, “A lot of these rural communities aren’t that far from big cities.”

Working in a legal oasis is also a way to help others. “If you want to help someone, access to justice is a great way to get there,” says Jimbo Perry, a sentiment echoed throughout the panel discussion.

Practicing law in a legal oasis, panelists emphasize, is an opportunity to find meaningful work, avoid forced specialization, and meet the need for access to justice in these communities.

However, for the panelist experts, providing access to justice isn’t enough to flourish in a small-town. Their recommendation? Find someone who knows the community and learn everything you can from them. And give back. “If all your time is given to billable hours, it is going to be really hard to listen to your neighbor,” says Jimbo Perry.

In addition to dispelling myths about practicing law in a legal oasis, panel experts discussed current solutions for broadening access to justice.

Courtroom 5 is one of the ways North Carolina is leading the effort.

Developed by two women in Durham, NC, Courtroom5 is a mobile phone application to help educate pro se litigants to be more informed by providing guidance throughout their court case, litigation training, and workshops on managing a court case. The app costs $15 per month and offers additional in-app purchases, such as attorney consultations and hearing transcriptions.

The app serves as one of the readily-available ways people can improve their access to justice. Other methods offer a more long-term solution to tackle the issue.

For example, panelist Mark Atkinson recently launched the Incubator, which consists of a one-year program that helps entrepreneurial-minded law school graduates work with clients with low-to-moderate income and start their own practice in smaller communities. Although it takes time to complete, the Incubator Project offers promising results in the long-term.

The conversation and work around access to justice is ongoing. The North Carolina Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism and the North Carolina State Bar have recently joined forces to examine this critical concern, and are engaging with all the North Carolina law schools in an effort to meet the need for legal services in underserved areas.

Panelists also had ideas for the future.

One solution, offered by Marci Armstrong, was for young lawyers to learn from small-town lawyers who are near retirement, and eventually take over their firms. “Older lawyers don’t have anyone to leave their law firm to,” says Marci Armstrong. The younger lawyer pays the now-retired lawyer each month for their stake in the firm, providing them with a financial gain and someone to leave their firm to, Armstrong explains. The younger lawyer gains experience before taking over the firm and maintains the legal presence in the small-town community.

Panelist Will Graebe sees potential with artificial intelligence (AI), such as ChatGPT–an AI-powered language model capable of generating human-like text based on context and past generations. He recognizes its current limitations, however, referencing a recent scenario in which ChatGPT wrote a well-written legal brief that ended with the wrong conclusion. “As young lawyers, you are going to utilize AI—but we are not there yet.”

The “Legal Desert …or Legal Oasis: Solving the Problem of Access to Justice in NC” presentation and discussion was the final event of a week-long education series sponsored by Wake Forest Law. The programming series also included a “table talk” with Jimbo Perry, as well as a 1L career panel on small-town law practice, led by Jimbo Perry, Marci Armstrong, Judge Tom Langan (JD ’98), NC District Court judge, Shannon Russell, Inner Banks Legal Services, Boyd Sturges (’91, JD ’95), Davis, Sturges & Tomlinson, Charity Wilborn, ADA, 11th Prosecutorial District, and Christiana H. Johnson, Legal Aid NC, Wilson NC.