Nearly half of Colorado counties have 10 or fewer attorneys. A new grant aims to expand legal access for Coloradans

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Train tracks snake into the distance near Alamosa in the San Luis Valley on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

A statewide organization that helps rural Coloradans find legal solutions received a grant of over a half-million dollars this fall to figure out the legal needs of people living in legal deserts, and this month, hired a new staffer to manage it.  

The Colorado Access to Justice Commission received a two-year Rural Legal Deserts Grant in October to bring legal solutions, in the absence of lawyers, to parts of Colorado where there aren’t enough.  

The $627,000 grant comes from a Congressionally Directed Spending Award supported by Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper. After the first two years, the grant will expire; the commission can then reapply for additional funding, according to Elisa Overall, executive director of the commission.

She said that outside metropolitan areas like Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, most parts of Colorado have too few lawyers to serve their communities.

“Right now, 45 percent of the state's counties have 10 or less attorneys,” she said. “And that's certainly considered a legal desert.”

The American Bar Association defines a legal desert as a county with fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 people, according to Legal Evolution – an online publication that focuses on the legal industry.

The graphic in that article shows Colorado and seven other states (North and South Dakota, Utah, Montana, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia) are identified as “moderate/high legal deserts.” Only five states (Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas and Wisconsin) fall into the category of “high legal deserts.”

Courtesy of Legal Evolution.
Map of legal desert states.

Overall said that each rural area has different needs for legal services, and the grant will help them figure out those needs based on where the county is located.

“In Alamosa, we tend to see a lot of drug addiction, substance abuse, and so custody tends to be something that the communities have a greater need for, or potentially expungements of drug-related offenses ... There are areas with high numbers of immigrants and that's where immigration needs are very great and interpretation and translation.” 

A map of Colorado counties with 10 or fewer attorneys.

The commission is mostly volunteers, but it hired its second paid staffer – in addition to Overall – in the beginning of December. Jason Roberts, who recently graduated from law school, will direct the grant project.

He said that the program will train employees at non-profit organizations on how to help members of rural communities navigate the legal system without a lawyer.

Courtesy photo.
Elisa Overall

That’s what has worked in similar programs in Alaska, Oklahoma and California where residents were given access to legal information without necessarily meeting with an attorney.

The aim of the project is to, “build solutions together with rural communities instead of saying, ‘Hey, we have these ideas for you. Let's drop 'em on you and hope these ... cookie cutter things fit.”’

One might think that the natural solution for a legal desert would be to recruit lawyers for those deserts, but that plan hasn’t always been effective, Roberts said, because lawyers often migrate towards larger cities and towns.

“I think what we're going to have to do is get creative about other ways that we can connect people with legal resources and legal information aside from simply providing lawyers.” 

Courtesy photo.
Jason Roberts

Overall said that initially, they’ll focus on needs assessments, with the possibility of offering services in a rural Coloradan community or two later on. 

“We do have funds to plan and then implement solutions, and so the first phase of the grant will be a lot of listening to communities in rural legal deserts and listening to what their needs are, what has been tried and what has not worked, what has worked,” she said. 

That will be more fruitful than targeting a service area immediately, she said. “There is not a specific locational focus in the beginning, as we learn there will be at some point early on.”

She added: “Once we have really listened to a number of stakeholders in rural legal deserts, we'll then identify probably two specific communities, areas that qualify as rural legal deserts, where we think we can make progress in the short period of the grant.”