- Associated Press - Saturday, September 6, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - The state is preparing to launch its latest program intended to attract lawyers to rural Nebraska communities where there is a such a scarcity of practicing attorneys, some residents have to drive more than 100 miles to find one.

The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy is expected to begin taking applications for the Rural Practice Loan Repayment Assistance Program next month and to make its first payments in January.

Under the program, law school graduates who commit to serving at least three years in underserved Nebraska communities can get up to $6,000 a year to repay student loans. The program’s board is considering paying for up to seven years in underserved communities, for a total of $42,000 in student loan repayment, said Jim Mowbray, chief counsel for Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy and a member of the loan repayment program’s board.

“I’m anxious to see what this program will do,” Mowbray said. “It’s getting very difficult in rural Nebraska. I’ll go into communities where there might be only one lawyer in that county.”

Of the state’s 93 counties, there are 12 with no practicing attorney, according to the Nebraska State Bar Association. Twenty-one other counties have three or fewer attorneys.

“They’re having this problem throughout the Midwest - Kansas, the Dakotas, Iowa,” said Mike Fenner, president of the Nebraska State Bar Association and a law professor at Omaha’s Creighton University.

But in western Nebraska, where one can drive in some places for more than 50 miles without coming across a town, the shortage is particularly stark, he said.

People in western Nebraska’s Logan County have to drive more than 100 miles in any direction to reach a practicing attorney, Fenner said.

The significance of that distance hit him when he recently had to drive about 130 miles to get to a speaking engagement at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

“And I thought, what if I had to go to Vermillion to get medical care?” Fenner said. “I can tell you, I’d get a whole lot less medical care.

“The same thing is happening with these folks in western Nebraska. You’re going to get a whole lot less legal care if you have to drive more than 100 miles to get it.”

Most young attorneys fear that moving to rural Nebraska will mean a much lower income, Fenner said. But attorneys “can make a lot of money in rural Nebraska,” he said, especially when one considers the lower cost of living in areas outside of Omaha and Lincoln. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median house value in 2010 in Omaha was nearly $133,000 and more than $142,000 in Lincoln. Comparatively, the median house value in the small western Nebraska city of Sidney was about $100,000.

For two years, the state bar has been sending busloads of law students from the University of Nebraska and Creighton into rural Nebraska for two-day tours, where the students meet with town leaders, real estate agents, school officials and health care workers to give them a firsthand look at the opportunities they would have as attorneys in a rural setting.

“It’s not that young lawyers don’t want to move there; they don’t know they want to move there,” Fenner said. “They see that they can have a really terrific and varied law practice. They’re not going to get stuck in a windowless office in some big law firm working on one antitrust case for a year.”

The effort appears to be paying off. Fenner said in the first year, two law students accepted summer clerkships in rural Nebraska, and two other law school grads accepted permanent positions in western Nebraska.

Mowbray and others hope the loan repayment program also will draw new blood to rural communities.

The Legislature provided $500,000 for the program this spring, and the program’s board has decided to limit overall payments to $150,000 each year for the first three years. It hopes to garner more state funding and private donations for the program in the coming years, Mowbray said.

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