I remember my Grandpa emphatically saying, “There are too many lawyers.” That might have been true in the past or in other places, but it is not true in Ravalli County.

Many people are probably glad there are so few attorneys here. But they shouldn’t be. A lack of attorneys means lots of people who can’t find one end up “winging it” in court and often make costly mistakes. This is especially true in divorce cases where the stakes are high (access to children and divisions of money). Another problem with the lack of attorneys is that almost all people representing themselves – and that’s a huge portion of cases – don’t know the court rules, which clogs up the court system and causes delays for criminal cases and important civil cases. Ravalli District Court Clerk Paige Trautwein reports that 42% of divorce cases involve people without attorneys. These cases take far longer to resolve because non-attorneys do not know the court rules.

Montana suffers from a double whammy. Montana has fewer attorneys per capita than most states and we have a high poverty rate. There aren’t enough attorneys and many potential clients cannot afford them. Lots of important legal needs go unmet.

Attorneys give away a tremendous amount of free legal services. The amount reported to the bar association was $20 million in 2022 alone. Many attorneys do not report the amount of their free legal services to the bar. I don’t, but I estimate that I gave away $20,000 in free legal services in the past year. Most attorneys give away a similar amount.

But giving away free legal services isn’t keeping up with demand. I turn away at least one case a day because I simply don’t have the time to take on any more. Many of those I turn away don’t find another attorney and have to “wing it” – to their probable detriment.

What’s the solution? That would take hours to discuss. One big problem is that many younger attorneys do not want to live in the “sticks” like Ravalli County (their loss). Many of them would rather live in Missoula. Some well-established Ravalli County law firms say they might have to wind down if they can’t find younger attorneys to start taking over their practices. Then we’ll all need to go to Missoula to find an attorney.