WAYNE, Neb. | In nearly 50 years as a trial lawyer in Nebraska, Lyle Koenig has practiced in cities and small towns, trying cases in counties from the Missouri River all the way west to the Wyoming border.
During that time, he has watched the number of lawyers in rural areas decline. In the Panhandle city of Alliance alone, Koenig said, the number of lawyers has shrunk from 18 to three.
That's not enough, he said, to serve people needing help with legal tasks such as property deed transfers, contracts and estate planning. For them and other Nebraskans in rural areas, they have a choice: travel longer distances to meet with a lawyer, or just don't get those legal matters taken care of.
"Every citizen, because they have legal needs from time to time needs access to justice, which means access to lawyers," Koenig said.
A new program involving three Nebraska colleges and the University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln aims to increase the number of lawyers in rural areas. The Rural Law Opportunities Program, or RLOP, guarantees chosen high school students from rural Nebraska -- basically anywhere outside Lincoln, Omaha and its suburbs -- entrance into law school. In return, it's hoped that when graduating from law school, the new lawyers will practice in a rural area.
"I think this is something that could be very successful. I really hope that this will serve the people of Nebraska," said Tammy Evetovich, dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences at Wayne State College. Her school, Chadron State College and the University of Nebraska-Kearney are involved in the program.
According to Nebraska State Bar Association statistics, 31 of Nebraska's 93 counties -- one-third -- had three or fewer lawyers in 2015. Of those 31 counties, most of them in the western two-thirds of the state, 11 had no lawyers.
"I am acutely aware of the need. I know this can go a long way toward helping it," said Koenig, a 1966 Wayne State graduate and Wisner native who recently relocated to West Point.
He met with Evetovich, other Wayne State administrators and Nebraska College of Law interim dean Richard Moberly earlier this year to see what could be done in addition to other Bar Association programs already encouraging lawyers to work in rural areas.
"We realized how mutually beneficial it would be and how good it would be for the state," Moberly said.
They came up with RLOP, which is similar to the Rural Health Opportunities Program that for more than 25 years has guaranteed a select number of rural students enrolled at Wayne State and other state colleges admission into the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Moberly said that about 60 percent of that program's graduates go to rural Nebraska communities to practice, helping to ease rural health care provider shortages.
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"We'd love it if we could get that," Moberly said.
Wayne State, Chadron State College and Nebraska-Kearney each will select five high school seniors every year, beginning with the class of 2017. Once selected, students are guaranteed a spot in the Nebraska law school if they maintain good grades in college, complete their undergraduate requirements and score well on the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT.
Moberly said that 17-20 graduates -- about 15 percent -- in each of the past three Nebraska law school graduating classes have gone to practice in rural Nebraska. He hopes that RLOP will send an additional 10 new lawyers into those areas.
It's generally accepted that rural natives are the ones most likely to return to a rural area after graduation. RLOP takes advantage of the fact that Wayne State and the other participating colleges attract a majority of their students from rural Nebraska.
"Our whole point is we want to serve the students where we're at," Evetovich said. "I'm hoping we'll get some high-quality students as a result."
Local high school guidance counselors already see the potential benefits.
Ponca High School counselor Fran Hassler said that upon hearing about RLOP, she immediately thought about a current Ponca senior who would be perfect for the program. Each Ponca graduating class usually has two or three students considering a career in law, Hassler said. If they're not already considering attending Wayne State, RLOP now gives them another college option, plus a scholarship.
"I am so excited that they're offering this program," Hassler said. "The nice part about it is the automatic acceptance into law school. That's a big deal."
Wayne State has already notified counselors of RLOP, Evetovich said. Admissions representatives will soon be touting it as they recruit the next batch of freshmen.
"I couldn't be more excited," she said.
Koenig, too, is excited. As a small-town native, he hopes RLOP will improve access to legal services in rural Nebraska.
"It seems to me that because a Nebraska citizen elects to live in the country, he or she shouldn't have to accept second-hand status," Koenig said. "If 15 (students) a year go on to graduate and (RLOP) puts 10 in the country each year, in 10 years that's 100 lawyers. That would make a big difference."