Worries about legal deserts might be assuaged via AI and remote access

by Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Key briefing points about this article:

  • A rising consideration in the legal profession has to do with qualms about legal deserts


A desert is generally considered a rather desolate place. Trying to find food and water can be quite problematic. The chances of falling ill or expiring due to dehydration or starvation can be relatively high unless you are specially equipped for a desert trek or manage to luckily come upon an oasis.

Why all this talk about deserts and survival?

Because some liken that there are parts of the country that are essentially (so-called) legal deserts.

This implies that such locales are relatively barren of readily available legal advice and precludes or limits access to locally versed and available attorneys. Akin to the adverse consequences that can befall someone in an actual desert, these legal deserts portend adverse ramifications for the public at large.

Presumably, those that live in a legal desert area are likely to be underrepresented legally, oftentimes unaware of their legal rights, and unable to pursue recourse in the judicial system as a result of perchance residing in a place that has few barristers. You might suggest that there is a notable semblance of legal starvation or legal dehydration in those areas.

Some believe that these legal deserts need a hefty dose of legal advisor services and opine about ways in which this might be arranged. The most prevalent approach involves making human lawyers variously accessible, whether in-person or remotely, and meanwhile a less discussed but albeit additional possibility involves the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as applied to the law and legal reasoning.

Surveying The Legal Desert

Let’s take a closer look at the legal desert aspects.

The ABA released its latest annual report entitled ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2020, showcasing key metrics about the status of the law profession throughout the United States. This fascinating compendium provided insights into the growth of the profession and laid out a slew of visually engaging demographic analyses via a multitude of key metrics, including counts by state, by gender, by age, and so on.

New this year is a section devoted to the topic of “legal deserts,” and which was noted as a relatively new term that is increasingly gaining traction in the legal field.

Per the definition proffered in the report, a legal desert is essentially a geographical area whereby residents have to travel relatively far to confer with a lawyer for needed legal advice. The advice sought might entail outstretched or extensive legal matters, or even encompass seemingly mundane or routine legal facets such as disputing a traffic ticket or drawing up a simple will.

In short, there are few if any attorneys that are physically available in these so-called legal desert locales.

This lack of within-reach legal advisors can have a variety of downsides. The public in those locales might not be aware of their legal rights and thus fail to exercise them accordingly. Furthermore, upon realizing that an attorney would be vital to their activities, the travel costs and logistic barriers to seeking and conferring with a lawyer might be prohibitive to their getting crucial legal guidance. Pundits tend to suggest that these legal deserts are further evidence supporting the contention that there is an unfortunate access-to-justice problem that sorely needs to be overcome.

Let’s consider some of the eye-opening stats revealed in the report. Note that the report carefully describes the methodology used to reach the provided estimates and emphasizes that various assumptions underly the data collection and statistical analyses that were undertaken.

That being said, the first interesting stat would be that there are approximately 1.3 million lawyers in the United States.

Given that count, can you guess the top five states in terms of the states having the most lawyers?

Perhaps you have a hunch or intuition about where the predominant centers seem to be of major law offices and the like.

Here’s the answer, along with the number of lawyers and their percentage of the total lawyers across the whole country:

1) New York: 184,662 lawyers (14% of the USA)

2) California: 168,569 lawyers (13% of the USA)

3) Texas: 92,833 lawyers (7% of the USA)

4) Florida: 79,328 lawyers (6% of the USA)

5) Illinois: 62,720 lawyers (5% of the USA)

If you add-up those counts and percentages, you’ll see that those five states account for 588,112 of the lawyers in the U.S, amounting to 45% or nearly half of all the lawyers in America.

Of course, the use of arithmetic counting does not tell the whole story.

Some states have a larger sized population and so perhaps this would tend to attract more lawyers accordingly. There might also be smaller populated states that could have as many or more lawyers per capita, despite having a lesser number of total of lawyers present in their state.

Fortunately, the report provides a per capita indication to help discern where the coverage of lawyers is either relatively high or low.

Here’s then your next quick quiz.

Can you name which five states have the highest per capita of lawyers per population (based on a scale of measuring one lawyer per each one thousand residents)?

The answer is:

1) New York: 9.5 lawyers per 1,000 residents

2) Maryland: 6.7 lawyers per 1,000 residents

3) Massachusetts: 6.2 lawyers per 1,000 residents

4) Connecticut: 5.9 lawyers per 1,000 residents

5) Vermont: 5.8 lawyers per 1,000 residents

Those are the states with the highest per capita, so now see if you can guess which five states have the lowest.

Get ready, the answer is:

  • Idaho: 2.2 lawyers per 1,000 residents

Overall, the nationwide average is about 4 lawyers per 1,000 residents. And, as seen via the listings herein, the highest per capita is 9.5 and the lowest is 2.1.

Keep in mind that those are based on state-level populations. When you delve into the county or county-equivalent levels, the picture becomes rather bleak when it comes to the number of areas throughout the US that lack lawyers in their locale.

For about 40% of the counties and their equivalents, there is less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, oftentimes amounting to none at all in that locale.

It is hard to definitively gauge the impacts of these legal deserts.

We can easily know the supply side by these counts but likewise knowing what the demand would be is difficult to ascertain. Even if you were to ask people whether they felt bereft of having a local lawyer, many might not realize what a lawyer could aid them in. There is also the factor of induced demand, namely that once people realize a resource is available, they tend to start making use of that resource, which otherwise the demand for the resource was unrealized.

Resourcing Legal Deserts

What might be done about these legal deserts?

An obvious approach is to somehow lure lawyers to physically reside in the locales that seem to have low per capita counts. This is not especially straightforward since there might be an insufficient need in a given locale and a lawyer so positioned might find themselves unable to make a living there.

Another approach to consider involves remote lawyering or sometimes coined as virtual law offices.

Lawyers in major cities and otherwise higher per capita locales might be able to serve those in these legal deserts via remote capabilities. The pandemic has become a kind of wake-up call about working remotely, including for those in the legal profession. If this tendency continues post-COVID, it could establish that lawyers working off-site are acceptable by the legal profession and the courts, along with getting the public used to the idea too.

You can even turn this somewhat on its head and suggest that lawyers currently residing in high per capita geographies might find it desirable to relocate to locales that have few lawyers in place today. Doing so could allow for a change in how one lives their life, possibly lowering day-to-day living costs, and keep them busy due to handling local legal needs and still providing their skills for the locale that once resided in.

Another factor is the rising capability of LegalTech and AI systems.

Lawyers using the latest in LegalTech and AI are likely to find that practicing law remotely is supported and emboldened via online applications in the cloud, allowing them to work from anywhere while remaining in touch with their colleagues, including using tools such as e-discovery, contract life cycle management, AI-powered legal chatbots, and the like. This avid use of electronic online systems readily allows for the sharing of pertinent legal info with others, regardless of whether the stakeholders are nearby or far away.


Legal deserts do not need to remain as they are.

Via the advent of remote working tools and advanced LegalTech applications, lawyers can reach out into those deserts to provide a lifeline. Furthermore, some lawyers might overtly choose to move into those legal deserts, serving as a local legal oasis that can help turn the sparse legal landscape into one thriving with justice.

Time to turn legal deserts into thriving lands of equal access to justice.

For the latest trends about AI & Law, visit our website www.ai-law.legal

Additional writings by Dr. Lance Eliot:

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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