Expanding the reach of the University of Kentucky Legal Clinic into rural areas not only helps rural residents but may help law students see the need to practice there after graduation. 

Dr. D’lorah Hughes oversees the legal clinic and its students at the University of Kentucky’s J. David Rosenberg College of Law. There, third-year law students, also known as 3Ls, represent low-income clients on a variety of civil matters – from landlord-tenant disputes to end-of-life documents to divorces and expungements.

Hughes took over as director this fall after former director Allison Connelly retired. Connelly led the clinic from its inception in 1997. Now, under Hughes’ direction, the service will expand into rural areas of the state.

Changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic helped the clinic reach clients in rural areas and make serving those clients easier for students as well. While the clinic has always been able to serve clients across the state, the logistics of in-person meetings and court appearances in rural areas sometimes presented problems.

“Covid taught us a lot of lessons,” she said. “One of those was the ease of use of technology and the potential ways we can use those tools to increase access. When I came here, my thought was that there was unmet need literally in every part of the state and the university’s tech resources could be a means for the Legal Clinic to help meet some of that need.”

While students were previously constrained by their academic workload, communications over Zoom meant students could meet with potential clients virtually instead of traveling to rural areas. Consequently, clients could meet with a lawyer without having to drive hours to the clinic’s UK offices.

Under Hughes’ supervision, between 10 and 13 students provide free advice, consultations and, if needed, in-person representation for low-income clients, she said. Handling about 50 cases a semester, the clinic gives students an opportunity to practice their skills interviewing and counseling clients, as well as standing up for them.

In some cases, that advocacy is as simple as a phone call, Hughes said.

One recent client came to them after their landlord was slow to return their security deposit. After calling and saying they were an attorney, one student was able to get the client’s money back. The student went on to secure an additional payment for late fees because the deposit’s return had taken so long.

For rural residents, it’s not just a lack of income that can affect their access to legal help. Sometimes there just aren’t enough attorneys to go to, Hughes said.

“We’re trying to help the community as much as we can while still fulfilling our mission to educate our law students,” she said. “To that degree, it’s a service that is only partially filling a gap. But what better place to do that work than in the more rural parts of our state where we clearly do not have enough lawyers to serve the people of those communities?”

Evan Smith, advocacy director for AppalReD, a legal aid clinic helping clients in south central and eastern Kentucky, said oftentimes in rural communities, the number of attorneys in a county can be counted on one hand. 

“The need is massive,” Smith said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “More than 90% of legal needs are unmet nationally, and residents in the 37 counties we cover are no different. We’re only able to handle a small slice of what the need is out there.” 

Smith said every day his organization has to turn clients away and hope the private sector can absorb those cases. Cases like workers’ compensation and disability benefits claims, require a great deal of time, he said, which is hard for the organization to accommodate with its limited staffing. 

Hughes hopes that putting students in rural communities will help them see the need that is out there, in the state and in some cases their own communities.

“My hope is that exposure to this work doesn’t just benefit the students when they are here in school, but that it is something that is impactful to them in the long run,” she said. “I hope that they take away a greater sense of the legal needs of all types of people and are thoughtful about how to incorporate access to justice work when they’re out post-graduation… the vast majority of whom are going to stay in Kentucky and practice law.”

The clinic gives students the opportunity to discover what representing clients is like outside of the classroom setting.

“In seeing a case from beginning to end, I learned how quickly things change and how much of ‘lawyering’ is predominately communicating with parties outside of any formal court proceeding,” Holly Couch, a UK law student who works in the clinic, said in a statement. “I was surprised at how eager our clients are, not only to receive legal assistance, but also to have part in the hands-on education of 3L soon-to-be attorneys.”

While some cases can be wrapped up quickly, others are more complicated, Hughes said. 

One rural client, a 70-year-old man living in Monticello, is struggling after being involved in a car wreck, she said. The accident damaged his older car to the point it would cost more to repair than it was worth. Since he only had liability insurance, his insurance company refused to pay for the repairs, she said. The other party’s insurance company also refused to pay the claim leaving the man who lived miles from town without access to transportation.

“One of the Legal Clinic students is fighting a battle against a giant insurance company who the minute we, the lawyers, stepped in the door was like ‘Oh, well, okay we’ll look at it again,’” she said. “We’re making progress where there was once only a denial but we’re still having to work on it. It’s still a multi-month fight.”

The clinic takes cases based on financial need and urgency, she said. Right now, she is working to ensure that people know the service is there and have access to private space where clients can talk to the students privately. That means working with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Extension Services, and with libraries across the state.

Finding solutions to access is part of the challenge of meeting rural clients, she said.

“We also have to be mindful of the fact that not everybody’s got WIFI and not everybody feels comfortable with Zoom… we have to be considerate as well as creative in our problem solving about how we are going to serve subsets of people that aren’t necessarily easy to access.”

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