Trial Briefs

Our Legal Deserts

November 16, 2022   |   Valerie Johnson

A Lack of Lawyers Could Force Change For NC Legal Systems

Where are You Now?
Odds are that you are sitting in the Triangle, the Triad, Charlotte or perhaps in Fayetteville, Asheville or Wilmington. There are fewer lawyers per capita in North Carolina than in other large states, especially in rural communities. The American Bar Association survey published in 2022 states that there are only 2.5 lawyers in the state for every 1,000 residents, leaving North Carolina at number 39 in the nation. In contrast, Georgia, whose population is only slightly larger than that of North Carolina, has 3.1 lawyers by the same measure and is listed at number 20. South Carolina is at the bottom of the list, with 2.1 lawyers per 1,000 residents.1

The lack of lawyers in North Carolina has created legal deserts. Many have sounded the alarm: We are not providing enough legal services, and people are suffering as a result. It is understanding that young lawyers would have difficulty establishing a practice in areas that are high in poverty, especially when they are burdened with student loan debt.2 Legal Aid lawyers are few in number and cannot keep up with the onslaught.3 More work by lawyers, whether pro bono or paid, cannot solve the problem. There simply are not enough hours in the day to make that happen.4

Most troubling, the number of criminal defendants awaiting adjudication of their cases is staggering. As of September 2022, there were more than 800,000 cases moving through the system in North Carolina, down from about 925,000 in 2021.5 There are only 40 public defender offices in the state. Low rates for private attorneys to take criminal cases — despite the great work of Indigent Defense Services and others in 2021 to raise the hourly rates — compound the problem. It is incredible that in 2022, pay rates for those of us protecting the rights of the accused lag behind the level of 2011, despite the crushing need.

Though lawyers have a proliferation of technology to use to contact and work with clients, many people in small towns and less populated counties have extreme difficulty finding help to get certain civil remedies.6 In 2020 the NC State Bar sponsored a committee to study ways that the legal community could change to address the challenging legal landscape. Licensing for legal paraprofessionals is one change that continues to be considered.7 Family law problems, landlord/tenant disputes and other frequently seen legal issues were targeted as issues that licensed paraprofessionals could help address for consumers.

The State Bar also considered establishing a regulatory sandbox, the concept of allowing previously prohibited products or services under the watchful eye of a regulatory council.8 The only example to date in North Carolina is a law passed in 2021 that allows new insurance and other products to be offered to consumers.9 The North Carolina Regulatory Sandbox Act is designed to allow innovation, especially in the growing sector of FinTech and InsurTech (short for financial technology and insurance technology), including peer-to-peer lending, crypto apps, etc.

Though NCAJ members probably are not regularly engaged in the development of new tech tools, the scheme shows an important trend: the desire to change the practice of law. Some say that our current law practice model is old and outdated, and that it no longer serves us or the legal consumer. The NC State Bar has been studying the experiences of other states and Canada since 2020 and has partnered with other stakeholders to study and report recommendations. The report of the NC Justice for All Project to the State Bar recommended change: education and licensing for paraprofessionals, a regulatory sandbox to allow new and different delivery of legal services and fee sharing and ownership with nonlawyers, among others.10 The State Bar is now establishing another study committee to look at options, though opposition to any change to the practice of law is considerable.

We do not yet know which changes that the State Bar is considering will be passed into law, or whether they will affect the way that we practice law in North Carolina. But since change is the only constant, we can be sure that the practices that we had when we started will not be the same ones that we are left with at the end. But the reasons that drew us into the law still can fuel us, no matter the circumstances.

What brought you here?

Did you find your way to the law because you had an imperative to go out and share your gifts with the world? Has that calling compelled you to take on challenging cases, to help people in their darkest hour or to join or build a business? Many lawyers feel the moral imperative to seek justice and to improve the world.

When I was in school there was scant attention given to passions and missions in the career discussions. Graduating from high school and getting a job at the local glass plant allowed you to make a good living and raise a family. None of the children I knew dreamed of becoming lawyers. There were few attorneys around, and their paths seemed unclear and unattainable. We were encouraged to become nurses, teachers or police officers and to “make a living.”

I thought that I would become a scientist or a doctor because my mother loved and taught chemistry. But in the summer when I was 14 years old, the librarian at the local library casually spat a racial epithet at me. Little did I know that her bad behavior would lead to me finding my calling.

I fled the library and saw that people were walking into the courthouse across the street. I had never been inside before, but there wasn’t much else to do on a hot summer day in Henderson. The gallery was mostly full in the grand courtroom, and there was a small dark-skinned man on the witness stand. He was being questioned by a lawyer who wanted to know why he had taken the can of beans and wieners from the Safeway supermarket. The judge and the other lawyer waited for the answer.

“He stole the food because he was hungry,” I thought. Why else would anyone choose to steal Beanie Weenies? The defendant’s clothes were worn, his face was wrinkled and his eyes were fearful. He didn’t answer right away, and the judge called the lawyers to the bench. I could hear most of the conversation, since I sat up front, and “jail time” floated back to me.

I looked around to see that the people sitting around me were all Black, and the people up front were not. They wore suits in the heat, and we were casually dressed. It didn’t seem right that the division between those who needed justice and mercy and those who meted it out was so stark. The old man sat alone, expectantly. I made up my mind that I would one day help people like him, and even though no voice whispered in my ear, I had my mission set.

You too have probably felt the pull of a mission in the law. You may have been told that you would make a good lawyer, but you were the one who took the steps to get to the place where you are today. In fact, you are not just any lawyer. You decided to fight for the injured, the accused, against discrimination or to right the wrongs of the powerful. The fight you undertake every day to protect people’s rights requires a dedication to others and to learning and growth that is unlike what many other professions ask from their practitioners.

Your calling made you grow a thick skin. When protecting your clients against attacks means that you have to work harder, or know more, you do it. You face uncertainty and come out the other side with a plan. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t. But you are nothing if not adaptable.

Whatever the legal landscape is, or the challenges you will face in the future, you will overcome. After all, even a global pandemic did not stop you.

1 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2022 Report, www.abalegalprofile. com, accessed on October 4, 2022.
2 “A Low Bar,” The Assembly, www.theassemblync.com/politics/courts/a-low-bar-in-the-nc-courts, accessed on October 4, 2022. 3 “More than 2 million low-income North Carolinians were eligible for the services of legal aid providers in 2018. There is 1 legal aid attorney for every 8,000 North Carolinians eligible for legal services,” Legal Deserts: A Threat to Justice in North Carolina, Lawyers Mutual Byte of Prevention Blog, May 11, 2022, www.lawyersmutualnc.com/risk-management-resources/articles/legal-deserts-a-threat-to-justice-in-rural-north-carolina, accessed on October 3, 2022.
4 Id.
5 “A Low Bar,” The Assembly, www.theassemblync.com/politics/courts/a-low-bar-in-the-nc-courts, accessed on October 4, 2022. 6 North Carolina Justice for All Report, 2022, www.ncjfap.org, accessed on October 4, 2022.
7 NC Bar Blog, www.ncbarblog.com/pd-utilization-committee-update-regulatory-reform-affecting-paralegals-in-north-carolina-and-beyond/, October 4, 2022.
8 The development and oversight of a sandbox would be driven by just one regulatory objective set by the court: “to ensure consumers access to a well-developed, high-quality, innovative, affordable, and competitive market for legal services.” Put differently: innovation to improve access.” NC State Bar Issues Subcommittee on Regulatory Change: Report and Recommendations, www.ncjfap. org, January 2022.
9 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 169-1 et seq. (H624/SL 2021-166, October 15, 2021). 10 “A regulatory sandbox might allow nonlawyer ownership and investment in law firms and/or relax some restrictions on entities offering legal services under regulatory oversight.”
10 “A regulatory sandbox might allow nonlawyer ownership and investment in law firms and/or relax some restrictions on entities offering legal services under regulatory oversight.”

About the Author

Valerie Johnson

President

Valerie Johnson

President

Valerie Johnson has been a trial lawyer since she graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law with honors in 1994. Her firm, Johnson & Groninger PLLC, practices statewide in the areas of workers’ compensation law, personal injury, and bicycle crash law and has offices in Durham and Charlotte.

Johnson teaches trial advocacy at the University of North Carolina School of Law and has taught workers’ compensation law at the Wake Forest University School of Law. She is an editor of North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Law: A Practical Guide to Success at Every Stage of a Claim published by LexisNexis. Johnson is a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance and a fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers. She is the 2021 recipient of the Charles L. Becton Award for teaching from the North Carolina Advocates for Justice.

She serves as a director on the Board of Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company.