Rural Wisconsin Lacking Lawyers, Especially Up North

Fewer Than 40 Percent Of Active Attorneys Practicing In Rural Areas

Joe Gratz (CC0 1.0) 

Fewer than 40 percent of Wisconsin’s 12,752 active attorneys practice law outside of major urban areas, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin. Many rural counties are lacking attorneys, especially up north.

Fifteen counties have 10 or fewer attorneys actively practicing law, according to data provided by the association. Nine of those counties are in northern Wisconsin, including Iron, Langlade and Forest counties.

Amy Ferguson, co-chair of the association’s New Lawyer Challenges Committee, said the numbers raise concerns about access to justice in rural areas.

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“We’re seeing trends in aging out,” she said. “A lot of lawyers in our area are in their upper fifties, lower sixties, seventies — even some of them looking to maybe retire soon, maybe pass on their businesses, their practices — just moving on.”

Florence and Buffalo counties tied for the lowest number of active attorneys with only three lawyers practicing in each county — most of whom were 50 or older.

Vilas County Circuit Court Judge Neal “Chip” Nielsen said many attorneys in northern Wisconsin are on the verge of retirement. Data shows only six of the county’s 40 attorneys are under the age of 50. Of the nearly 17,000 attorneys residing in the state, 53 percent are 50 or older.

Nielsen said student loan debt may be a factor in whether young lawyers and their families choose to live in rural areas.

“Young lawyers come out of school today with a considerable amount of debt,” he said. “Health insurance is expensive so servicing the debt and taking care of their families is uncertain without the benefit of a salary and knowing that they can appropriately budget.”

According to 2012 data from the American Bar Association, the average law student borrowed anywhere from $84,000 to $122,000 to finance their education. States like Nebraska have recently begun offering student loan debt relief for young lawyers who commit to living in rural areas.

For its part, the New Lawyer Challenges Committee has organized a bus tour for young lawyers and law students in an effort to attract attorneys to rural areas of the state. The tour will be held the weekend of Oct. 7-8 and visits Rhinelander and Marinette.

Ferguson, who is a young lawyer herself, said she enjoys working as a criminal defense lawyer in Rhinelander.

“It’s a little quieter. There’s not as much hustle and bustle, not as much traffic – things like that,” she said. “And you can still have a very successful, rewarding, exciting legal practice in this area. It’s a closer knit legal community, which, to me, that collegiality is really a huge benefit and a huge draw to practicing and living up here.”

Ferguson said the committee is also looking to help with succession planning for retiring lawyers looking to transition their practice.

According to the association, around 64 percent of active attorneys in Wisconsin practice law in Waukesha, Milwaukee and Dane counties.