Legal deserts are a surprisingly common problem. Yet, more surprising is the relatively modest cost of a solution.
In its annual Profile of the Legal Profession for 2020, the American Bar Association defined a legal desert as a county with fewer than one lawyer per 1000 people, which is 75% lower than the national average of four lawyers per 1000. In chapter 1 of the Profile, ABA researchers painstakingly presented the data, state by state and county by county, noting that of the 3,100 counties or county-equivalents, nearly 1,300 (41%) fit the legal desert criteria. See id (hereafter ABA Legal Desert Report).
To place the term “legal desert” into a broader context, approximately 15 years ago, food deserts became a popular term of art used to classify low-income communities without reasonable proximity to a local grocery store. During the 2000s, as interest in obesity and diabetes rose across the nation, US Department of Agriculture, the White House, and public health advocates became focused on the social value and importance of eliminating food deserts.
In effect, the ABA’s legal desert term extends the “desert” concept to justice and lawyer availability within a set geographic area (in this case counties). In the ABA Legal Desert Report, researchers made three descriptive findings: (1) lawyers per capita vary by state, (2) “where there are more people, there are more lawyers,” and (3) rural counties were at the most significant risk of being a legal desert.
In this essay, we significantly extend and reimagine the ABA Legal Desert Report. Our analysis is organized into three parts:
- Areas of greatest need. We quantify the problem at the state level by calculating the proportion of counties that qualify as legal deserts. See Figure 1 (showing 13 states in which more than 50% of counties are legal deserts). This is important because, in every instance, the state is the licensing authority that is integral to any proposed solution, as it regulates who can provide legal services.
- Quantify the resources needed to solve. We estimate the minimum number of lawyers needed to eliminate all legal deserts, including a state-level geographic breakdown. Assuming maximum efficiency of distribution, that number is 10,395, which is very similar to the current number of legal aid providers in the US (10,163).
- Examining the relationship between population size and legal deserts. To facilitate future policy discussions, we carefully examine the relationship between population and legal deserts, noting that the problem is disproportionately concentrated in rural and frontier counties—a finding that is highly relevant to any state regulator that is open to targeted solutions.
Finally, we also offer some brief concluding thoughts on tradeoffs and starting points for a solution.
1. Areas of greatest need
When we combine the ABA Legal Desert Report with the United States 2020 Census Population estimates, 1,291 counties in the United States (41.1%) qualify as legal deserts.
The number of lawyers per capita is highly correlated with a state’s proportion of legal deserts. However, these constructs are not identical nor directly interchangeable. In a statistical model, a state’s lawyers per capita number predict only half the variability in the proportion of legal desert counties. This occurs because lawyers are not spread evenly (i.e., proportionately based on population) across states and counties.
Figure 1 (lede graphic above) depicts the proportion of legal deserts by state. Four states (all geographically small states in the northeast) have zero legal desert counties. In contrast, in 13 states more than half of all counties qualify as legal deserts. In five states (Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, and Wisconsin) the proportion of legal desert counties exceeds 60%.
Another way of quantifying the problem of legal deserts—and one that produces a different visual picture of need—is counting up the total number of counties that fit the legal desert criteria. These results are presented in Figure 2.
As shown above, three states (Virginia, Georgia, and Texas) have more than 60 legal desert counties. Texas alone had 118 legal desert counties, which is partially a function of its large geographic size and a correspondingly large number of counties (254 total). Nonetheless, 45.5% of Texas counties qualify as legal deserts, which is 9.1% of the national total.
The 21 states with the lowest number of legal deserts included 599 counties in total, of which 118 were legal deserts (19.7%). In contrast, the top 21 legal desert states included 998 legal desert counties out of 2077 total counties (48.1%). In brief, although legal deserts are a large problem nationally, the severity and pervasiveness of the problem vary widely by state, suggesting the need for a range of possible solutions.
The mean average proportion of legal desert counties is 36%. The northeastern region of the United States has the lowest proportion of legal desert counties, whereas the southwest and southeast has higher proportions of legal desert counties.
2. Quantify the resources needed to solve
The ABA Legal Desert Report focused on the problem of classifying, identifying, and describing legal desert counties. In this essay, we take the additional step of estimating the minimum number of lawyers (or more generally legal providers) necessary to eliminate legal desert counties throughout the entire United States and within each state.
Despite being a large and pervasive problem, the resources necessary to eliminate legal deserts are relatively modest—10,349 lawyers, which is less than 1% of the current 1.3 million lawyer population in the US. Although specific policy interventions are beyond the scope of this paper and, in addition, are bound to vary by jurisdiction, our estimate strongly suggests that the problem of legal deserts is solvable.
Figure 3 below shows the minimum number of lawyers in each state that is required to eliminate all legal desert counties.
Consider the following stepped progression. which begins with legal desert counties with the fewest total number of lawyers
- To eliminate 25% of legal desert counties, a minimum of 442 lawyers would need to be distributed to all legal desert counties that require one lawyer to resolve the legal desert and 119 counties that need two lawyers.
- To eliminate 50% of all legal desert counties, a minimum of 1,465 lawyers would need to be distributed across all counties that required 1 to 4 lawyers as well as two counties in need of 5 lawyers.
- To eliminate 75% of all legal desert counties would require 3,526 lawyers.
In a world of limited resources, these realistic and tractable starting points require remarkably few resources.
As noted earlier, the total number of lawyers to eliminate legal deserts is 10,349. In terms of distribution by state, the number of lawyers necessary to eliminate legal desert counties ranges from zero (in states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) to 1,259 (in Virginia). Overall, the top eight states require more lawyers to eliminate legal desert counties than the bottom 42 states combined (5,522 versus 4,827).
The average (mean) number of lawyers needed at the state level to eliminate legal deserts is 207. In contrast, the 50th percentile (median) number of lawyers needed to eliminate legal deserts is 125 lawyers.
Among the 46 states with at least one legal desert county, 33 states could completely eliminate legal desert counties with an efficient distribution of 250 or fewer lawyers. Once again, this suggests that in most states, the resources necessary to eliminate legal desert counties are relatively modest, at least as compared to the overall lawyer population.
Among states, however, the problem of legal deserts is very unevenly distributed. Figure 4 shows the cumulative minimum number of lawyers needed for 100% elimination of legal deserts.
As shown in Figure 4, legal deserts can be eliminated in 40 states through the efficient distribution of slightly more than 4,000 lawyers. The last ten states, however, would require an additional 6,000+ lawyers.
Is the problem of legal deserts counties a problem of lawyer shortage or an uneven geographic distribution of lawyers? The answer is “both.”
To get at this issue, we estimated the number of lawyers necessary to eliminate legal deserts beyond current lawyer counts. Specifically, because the existing number of lawyers in Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming is very different than the existing number of lawyers in California, New York, and Texas, we adjusted for the typical baseline number of lawyers in a state.
Figure 5 depicts the percentage increase of lawyers necessary to eliminate all legal deserts, assuming the prioritized addition of new lawyers to specific counties and no redistribution of existing lawyers.
To further contextualize the number of lawyers necessary to eliminate all legal deserts counties in the United States (10,349), we were surprised at its striking similarity to the number of full-time equivalent legal aid providers in the United States. The 2021 Justice Index estimates the number of FTE legal aid providers in the United States at 10,163 (54% funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and 46% funded by other sources). As another point of reference, there were 168% more lawyers in District of Columbia (27,743 lawyers based on the 2020 ABA Profile of the Profession report) than the minimum number of lawyers needed to eliminate all legal desert counties in the United States.
When it comes to legal aid, the United States spends half to a twentieth of what comparable countries spend as a percentage of GDP. See Earl Johnson Jr., To Establish Justice for All The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States (2013). Similarly, the Rule of Law Index has also documented the United States’ chronic substandard performance in access to and affordability of civil justice. A targeted investment in legal aid could eliminate all or at least most legal deserts in the United States, especially if alternative legal service providers were permitted to assist legal desert counties and communities.
3. Examining the relationship between population size and legal deserts
In comparing the 1,291 legal desert counties and the 1,850 counties not classified as legal deserts, the mean average population was 29,381 across legal desert counties versus 158,313 for non-legal desert counties. (The median averages were 16,044 and 41,055 respectively).
Obviously, the paucity of lawyers is likely attributable, at least in part, to the commercial viability of private law practice. Nonetheless, legal deserts are a big problem. In the United States, 38 million people are estimated to reside in legal desert counties or 11.6% of the nation’s population. As a telling point of reference, 90% of the US population lives within 10 miles of a Walmart store. See Corporate Walmart About Page.
The table below compares legal desert versus non-legal desert counties.
|Attribute||Legal Desert Counties||Non-Legal Desert Counties|
|Average number of lawyers||22||637|
|Range of lawyer counts||0 to 521||1 to 95,005|
Comparing the mean and medians, we observe a skew in the data, with high counts in a relatively small number of jurisdictions driving up the averages for both legal desert and non-legal desert counties.
However, the magnitude of skew is much higher in non-legal desert counties, meaning that some non-legal desert counties have very high populations and lawyer counts. As a result, the population mean for non-legal desert counties is almost 4x higher than the median; for lawyers, the difference is more than 10x.
Although this essay did not focus directly on the idea of “legal abundance counties,” it is worth noting that abundance better answers the question of where all the lawyers have gone, whereas legal deserts help to understand where the lawyers have not gone or have left. A supermajority of US lawyers resides in the 338 most populated counties (counties with populations of more than 200,000, excluding the District of Columbia). These 338 counties are 11% of the nation’s total. Although 68.5% of the nation’s population resides in these urbanized counties, they are home to 86% of the lawyers.
To better quantify the relationship between population and legal deserts, we placed all US counties into one of four groups based on population size:
|Rural||2,500 to 49,999||2003|
|Suburban||50,000 to 199,000||653|
Figure 6 depicts the differences in legal desert counties by population classification.
Using Rural counties (population of 2,500 to 49,999) as the referent, the proportion of legal desert counties in Frontier counties is not significantly different—both are 50% to 60%. However, only 23.9% of Suburban counties qualify as legal deserts. For Urban counties, the percentage drops to only 5.0%.
County population significantly predicts legal deserts. Further, it appears that population thresholds of Suburban and Urban county classification act as a type of protective factor against being a legal desert, especially being classified as an Urban county. That said, only in a relative sense can it be said that Suburban counties are doing well, as nearly a quarter qualify as legal deserts.
The table below summarizes the observed and expected number of legal desert counties based on demographic classification.
In brief, to find counties of lawyer abundance, examine Urban counties. To identify 99% of legal desert counties, look toward Frontier, Rural, and Suburban counties.
Concluding thoughts on tradeoffs and starting points
Solving access to justice deficits in the United States has become a complex challenge. However, solving legal desert counties is an achievable gain.
The concept of legal deserts is an extension of food deserts, and in both cases, physical proximity to resources is deemed critically important to health and welfare. As quickly emerged in discussions around food deserts, a minimum of food quality in grocery stores matters too. As a primary condition, a grocery store must be present (avoid a food desert); and, as a secondary condition, the satisfactory quality of the food available in those stores should be examined (avoid a “quality food” desert).
A recent “just solutions” framework suggests a guiding principle in legal services development and delivery is likely to focus on what is delivered rather than how or by whom. See Matthew Burnett & Rebecca Sandefur, “Designing Just Solutions at Scale: Lawyerless Legal Services and Evidence-Based Regulation,” 19 Direito Público 104, 105 (2022). These concepts, however, are closely tied to one another. Because most people engage legal services as a result of a personal recommendation from a trusted source (with internet searches being a very distant secondary source), see 2019 Clio Legal Trends Report at 21, the whom will likely act as predisposing or enabling factor for people to engage with a legal service provider.
Trust can easily wobble with deficits in authenticity, logic, and empathy. See Frances Frei, “How to build (and rebuild) trust,” Ted Talk (2018) (technology and operations management professor from Harvard Business School discussing trust as a precondition for social progress). Thus, in legal deserts, trust in justice and legal service providers will wobble when no help is proximally present.
Nonetheless, as a starting point, legal deserts set a floor for the whom (a legal services provider) and the how (in reasonable physical proximity). Given the relatively low bar for legal desert elimination, a courageous and strategic reimagination of the distribution of the legal services workforce has the potential to eliminate legal deserts across the United States. Over the longer term, we can move onto issues of breadth and quality.