Dec 6, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

A bill in Wisconsin proposes innovative measures to motivate more lawyers to practice in rural areas: In exchange for agreeing to represent poor defendants in the state’s smaller counties, lawyers will see their student loans paid off -- up to $20,000 annually. Here’s a closer look at the new incentive, as reported on by the Journal Sentinel.

A Shortfall of Lawyers

According to State Public Defender Kelli Thompson,  it can take as many as 100 calls to locate a lawyer for defendants in underserved areas -- and those who do end up taking the cases may travel for hours just to see their clients. “Judges are making us very aware, this is an issue,” she said. “It’s kind of all hands on deck.”

A large part of the problem, according to experts?  Wisconsin’s egregiously low payments to private attorneys who step in for the State Public Defender Office. The $40/hour rate has not only been static since 1992 despite repeated efforts to raise it, but is also the lowest in the nation. For many lawyers, this doesn’t even cover their overhead. As a result, many end up denying or limiting the number of cases they accept simply to make ends meet.

The School Loan Solution

With many law grads plagued by crippling debt, the hope is that the incentive plan will entice lawyers to either move to the area or to start accepting more cases. Under the terms of the bill, qualifying lawyers will need to maintain an office in one of the 26 Wisconsin counties with fewer than 25,000 residents or demonstrate performing the majority of their legal work there.

The two-year pilot program will cost $500,000, which backers suggest would effectively raise the rate paid to lawyers while simultaneously ensuring that defendants have access to adequate counsel. Said Rep. Ron Tusler, (R-Harrison), one of the bill’s sponsors, “I have every expectation it will pass the Assembly this session. I don’t see why wouldn’t. It's financially better for the state, helps folks stay in rural areas and it's more efficient."

Adds co-sponsor Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), “The vast majority (of new lawyers) think the only way to make enough to pay off debt is to work [in Milwaukee, Madison or Green Bay]. "That’s been the biggest struggle in rural areas — massive out-migration for 50 years. Our areas have a lot to offer — great places to live, work and raise families. We just need people to come and try it."

Read more about studying law in the US.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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