LEGAL DESERTS

There are more than 1.3 million lawyers in the United States, but they are not evenly distributed among the 50 states, or even within the states. That makes sense. Where there are more people, there are also more lawyers.

Big cities attract lawyers. The five boroughs of New York City have a huge number of lawyers – 117,000 for a population of more than 8 million. Manhattan alone has the vast majority of those lawyers: 95,000. And the New York suburbs of Long Island, Westchester and Rockland counties have another 36,000 lawyers.

But large swaths of the United States have few lawyers or no lawyers. There are more than 3,100 counties and county equivalents in the U.S., and 54 of them have no lawyers. Another 182 have only one or two lawyers. Many are parts of legal deserts – large areas where residents have to travel far to find a lawyer for routine matters like drawing up a will, handling a divorce or disputing a traffic violation.

Nationwide, there are roughly four lawyers for every 1,000 residents, but that number is misleading. New York City, for example, has much more than that – 14 lawyers for every 1,000 residents. Many state capitals also have unusually large lawyer populations. For example, Leon County, Fla., home of Tallahassee, the state capital, has 11 lawyers for every 1,000 residents.

Yet nearly 1,300 counties in the U.S. have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents. Almost every state has counties with few lawyers. For example:

New York State has more lawyers than any state in the country (184,000), but it also has Orleans County – on Lake Ontario between Buffalo and Rochester – with 31 lawyers for 40,000 residents, or fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 residents.

California, with 168,000 lawyers – the second-most of any state – also has seven counties with less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents. That includes Merced County, between San Jose and Fresno, with 0.74 lawyers for every 1,000 residents. At the other extreme, San Francisco County as 23 lawyers for every 1,000 residents.

Texas, with 93,000 lawyers – third-most of any state – has 254 counties. Nearly half (122) have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, including six counties with no lawyers at all. At the other extreme, Travis County, home of Austin, the state capital, has more than eight lawyers per 1,000 residents.

Many states with large, rural expanses have lots of counties with few lawyers. In Arizona, for example, two-thirds of all counties (10 of 15) have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents. In Idaho also, two-thirds of counties (29 of 44) have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, including three counties with no lawyers at all and two counties with only one lawyer.

Overall, 40% of all counties and county-equivalents in the United States – 1,272 of 3,141 – have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents.

No consistent correlation exists between a state’s population and the number of lawyers it has per 1,000 residents. For example, tiny Vermont – the second-smallest state by population – has more lawyers per 1,000 residents than all but four states. And at the other extreme, Arizona – the 14th largest state by population – has fewer lawyers per 1,000 residents than any other state.

Then again, simply having lawyers in a county doesn’t guarantee they are available to the public. Many lawyers work for the government – prosecutors, public defenders, city and county attorneys – and many others work for corporations or nonprofits. Numbers alone don’t always tell the full story, but they are a starting place for discussion.

California / Nevada

Washington / Idaho / Oregon

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