Bob Brookens wants to retire.
But he can’t.
Not quite yet.
The 73-year-old has been practicing law in the small central Kansas town of Marion for more than four decades. He’s done a little bit of everything – “domestic work, adoptions, estate planning, quiet titles, other land disputes, oh, my goodness, you name it” – but he doesn’t do quite as much as he used to.
“If you write a will, they expect you’re going to be around here” to execute it when the client dies, he says. “So I’m getting to tell people now that at 73, I’m likely to not be here by the time this will goes into use. Hopefully not, anyway.”
The problem? Marion, with a population of roughly 1,900 residents, has no younger lawyer to take his place.
“The door is open,” he says. “There’s plenty of work to do.”
Whether Brookens will be able to find a replacement is an open question. But his challenge isn’t unusual: Rural communities across Kansas are finding it increasingly difficult to attract young attorneys.
The trend is leaving the Kansas legal profession smaller, grayer and in crisis.
Marla Luckert, chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, spelled out the terms of that crisis in the annual State of the Judiciary Report earlier this year. Eighty percent of the state’s nearly 8,000 practicing lawyers live and work in just six counties: Douglas, Johnson, Leavenworth, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte.
That leaves just fewer than 1,600 attorneys to serve more than 1.2 million residents in the other 99 counties of Kansas.
“Left unaddressed,” she wrote, “this problem will only worsen as trends suggest younger attorneys are moving to our state’s urban centers while the attorney population in rural Kansas continues to dwindle.”
That shortage has profound ramifications for small Kansas towns.
Residents sometimes decide to go without attorneys for complicated legal matters, like child custody and real estate transactions. Others find themselves paying a rural time tax of sorts, spending hours on the road to and from their attorneys in bigger towns.
But the effects go beyond mere legal matters, observers say. Lawyers and other professionals often provide the leadership – on local boards, in various civic roles and in many more informal ways – that can help small communities thrive.
And some businesses might not choose to locate in small towns if they can’t hire a local attorney who understands the community.
“It’s not just an access-to-justice issue,” says Kansas Supreme Court Justice Keynen “K.J.” Wall Jr. There is an “economic and community impact.”
Rural Kansas has been losing people for more than a century: Many counties saw their population peak back in 1890. That trend is nothing new, and it’s not confined to Kansas. The entire country is increasingly sorted along political and educational lines – young people with college degrees tend to trend more liberal and head to urban areas, while Americans who don’t attend or finish college tend to be more rural and conservative. The result is a brain drain that small town leaders have lamented for decades.
For most of that time, however, many of those towns were still able to attract doctors and teachers and, yes, attorneys to serve the residents who remained. Those rural communities might not have been growing, but they were often still able to retain a professional sector.
In recent years that has started to change.
“It’s one of those things that starts with a slow trickle,” says Wall, who chairs the Rural Justice Initiative Committee, a 35-member board appointed by Luckert in December to examine the attorney shortage and suggest possible solutions.
“Traditionally in most of these counties, the young attorney would come out, and they would become a county attorney,” says Shawn Leisinger, associate dean for centers and external programs at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka. (He also serves on the Rural Justice Initiative Committee.) “They serve their time and then when the judge retired, they would apply and they would get selected and they’d move up to be judge. … And this has been for years, just kind of a normal sort of routine thing.”
Now, however, there aren’t always enough up-and-coming attorneys even to apply for judgeships.
“There are multiple counties that may only have one or none practicing attorneys still there,” Leisinger says.
Instead, small towns are losing out on new attorneys for the same reasons that many of their own young people leave for bigger towns and cities: Opportunities, professional and otherwise.
“They want to date,” Leisinger says. “They want to go to events. They want to see concerts. They want to have the ease of driving to whatever they want to do.”
The cumulative impact of all those individual decisions is taking a toll on local justice systems. In the six largest Kansas counties, there are two active lawyers available for every 535 residents and their median age is 40. In rural Kansas there is just one lawyer for every 808 residents, and their median age is 54. (The national median age for attorneys is 46.5.)
That’s a legal desert, Wall says.
The shortage especially shows up on the criminal docket, he said. Judges around the state report there aren’t enough qualified lawyers to appoint to felony cases – you can’t appoint a rookie to defend somebody accused of sex crimes or death penalty cases. “You have to be certified for that,” Wall says. Similarly, he said, there is a real struggle to find attorneys who can handle child-in-need-of-care matters.
For other kinds of cases, rural Kansans often “have to go farther now if they choose to go to an attorney,” says District Judge Kevin Berens, chief of the state’s 15th judicial district in Colby, a town of 5,500 people in northwest Kansas.
Some decide to forego an attorney entirely. “We definitely see a lot more self-represented litigants – people who take it upon themselves to file their own actions,” he says. And there are often resources for such folks, downloadable forms to guide litigants who for whatever reason can’t or won’t find a lawyer.
But “there are some complications to each one of those things,” Berens says. “If kids are involved, real estate or business, whatever else a person might have, it can be quite complicated.”
He added: “You go to somebody who studied the law for a reason.”
‘I can’t do it all’
Wall says that in many small towns, the attorneys who remain report they are turning clients away, facing too much work with too few hours in the day. Many would like to retire but don’t think they can.
“They’re holding on out of a sense of duty to their communities,” Wall says.
That certainly describes Brookens. Until this year, he kept two offices – one in Marion, the other in Hillsboro 10 miles to the west. In February, though, he closed the Hillsboro office, leaving that town completely without a lawyer.“It came down to a reality check. I can’t do it all,” Brookens told the Hillsboro Free Press.
Hillsboro is already feeling the loss, says Mayor Lou Thurston. His personal attorney is located in Newton, about a half-hour’s drive away. As for City Hall: Hillsboro once had a local city attorney, but he moved away. Those legal services are now provided by a lawyer at Triplett Woolf Garretson, a firm located an hour away in Wichita.
That’s not always convenient.
“Of course we have video conferencing and a lot of other things that we didn’t have years ago, so you can do some (virtual meetings), but ultimately it’s a matter of time and access,” Thurston says, adding that the new city attorney, Andrew Kovar, has “really guided us through some rocks and shoals and kept us out of trouble.”
“And so I’m very appreciative of that,” Thurston says, “but obviously we have to go 50 miles to get that representation.”
Those kinds of stories are becoming familiar to Berens. Back in Colby, he sees lawyers travel in from significant distances – from Hays, about 100 miles away, or even from Salina, which is nearly twice that far. For matters where remote video conferences are possible, attorneys from Wichita and Topeka sometimes make appearances.
“You have fewer lawyers trying to meet the demand of the communities they’re in … trying to do as much work as when there were more attorneys,” he says. “It’s a stressful job.”
Building for the future
While growing up in Colby, what Courtney Ress wanted was to get out and stay out.
“I know that I was very much like other kids from western Kansas who leave their hometowns to go off to college,” she says. “And at that time, for me, at 18 years old, the attitude was certainly, ‘I’m leaving this town in my rearview window. I would not like to come back.’”
She is back, though, aided by a program that connects young law students to rural communities in the hope they’ll like what they find and eventually settle down.
The program, a partnership between Washburn Law and the Dane G. Hansen Foundation in Logan, provides first-year law students with a $5,000 stipend for an externship at northwest Kansas firms, learning about the day-to-day practice of law in rural communities – and giving them a chance to, it’s hoped, discover the charms of small-town life.
“If they don’t know somebody from there, if they haven’t been there, if they don’t kind of understand what it is to live in a more rural area, it’s all those unknown sort of factors that keep them from saying, ‘OK, I’m going to try this,’” says Leisinger, who oversees the program. The externship is designed to bridge that gap.
Roughly 60 students have gone through the program in its first five years, he says. Of those, 45 have graduated and 15 have returned to rural Kansas to start their legal careers.
Ress, at least, didn’t have to be persuaded to return to Colby: After college at Kansas State and a few years of teaching, she knew that she wanted to return. “Colby is a great community where people do know each other, and they know each other back for generations, and I didn’t experience that in the same way in eastern Kansas,” she says. “So that was a very strong draw for me to return to my hometown.”
A legal career, Ress decided, was the best way back.
“I had seen that path work for other folks before, and so I knew that if I wanted to be here and really have a shot at a fulfilling career, law was a pretty good option for me,” she says. The externship at a Colby law firm validated that belief. “I was pretty set on my path, so I don’t know how much confirmation I needed, but it certainly helped me figure out where I was going to land.”
Leisinger says law grads who choose careers in urban settings often find themselves climbing the career ladder from the lowest rungs, working long hours at big firms in expensive locations.
The rural externships help some aspiring attorneys realize, “‘Hey, I can make a decent living here, and I can have a life,’” he says. “I can work a reasonable amount of hours. I can be involved in the community. I can be on the softball team. I can serve on the library board.”
Berens agrees. “Generally most rural communities are very welcoming. If you want a sense of belonging and a nice quality of life, there’s plenty of work,” he says. “Plus it doesn’t take long to get to work.”
Listen to Wall talk, and you get the impression that one task of his committee is to fight back against the narrative of inevitable rural decline.
“We’re not going to get to the point where there are only two large metropolitan communities in the state,” he says. “We have to buck against the notion that we can’t push against this rising tide. These communities are going to be around decades and centuries from now.”
Bringing lawyers back to small Kansas towns will probably require more than exposure to the charms of rural life, however.
Colby managed to bring Ress back to town, after all, but to a dwindling legal community. “My boss remembers a time where Colby had 16, 20-plus attorneys 50 years ago, perhaps,” she says. “And we just don’t have that kind of legal climate today.” State statistics say Thomas County, where Colby is the county seat, has 10 practicing attorneys today.
“I think that some folks are getting the (legal) services they need, and some folks are going without,” Ress added. “I think particularly in terms of folks who need divorces.”
Reversing the trend will take hard work and creative ideas.
“It’s not going to be solved in a day,” says Leisinger. “It’s got to be multiple approaches, including a look at loan forgiveness programs and housing assistance and those sorts of things to get students to be able to get out and get in these communities. The same thing that’s been done with dentists and doctors and nurses and everything else.”
Indeed, Wall pointed out that other professions – doctors, nurses, teachers – are also in short supply across rural Kansas. A multidisciplinary approach to those problems might be needed, he says, one that looks at common problems like child care access, but which also lets the different professions pass along good ideas to one another.
“There are larger systemic issues that need to be addressed,” he says.
The Rural Justice Initiative Committee will be looking to other states and other professions to fix the problem, he says. South Dakota, for example, has a “2+2” program that lets students complete their undergraduate and veterinary work together in just four years – part of a program to solve a vet shortage there. Nebraska has a similar “3+3” program that helps students go through college and law school in just six years. North Dakota is offering incentive payments of $45,000 for attorneys who promise to work full-time in rural communities for five years.
Ideas like those may make it into the committee’s final report, due next year.
In the meantime, Brookens is still searching for a successor. He is willing to pass along his office building and all the equipment in it to a young lawyer to come in and partner with him for a few years before he finally retires. “We need an attorney that does domestic work that can step into what I also do,” he says. “Ideally, we need not just an attorney, but a couple.”
His pitch? “There isn’t a better place on the planet than Marion, Kansas,” he says. “There just isn’t.
“You see your neighbors, you can go to church with your neighbors, your kids will know their classmates and they’ll be able to walk to their houses,” he says. “I cannot think of a better place to raise children than right here. It’s just a wonderful community.”
Wall, a native of Scott City, agrees. Attorneys in small communities, he says, have an opportunity to be part of the fabric of a community – to serve on hospital boards and promote development projects and, ultimately, to make a difference.
“Somebody who wants to have that sense of belonging, that opportunity awaits,” he says. “I think we just focus on the positives.”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.