Richard Moberly, left, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law; Tim Engler, president of the Nebraska State Bar Association; Mike Kelly, interim dean of Creighton University School of Law. During a recent interview with the Schuyler Sun, Moberly and Engler spoke about the overall lack of rural law representation and the effort being made to hire and retain counsel in numerous communities.

Mike Kelly and Richard Moberly have different allegiances.

Kelly, interim dean of Creighton University School of Law, recently sat in a Columbus Telegram conference room sporting a Creighton Bluejays pin on his left lapel. No more than a few feet was Moberly, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law, proudly wearing a bright red Nebraska pin on the same part of his suit jacket.

And though the men in all likelihood cheer for their own schools during basketball season and may even prioritize curriculum information differently, they both agree that graduating top-tier lawyers equipped to represent client needs is paramount.

A problem being faced, however, is retaining these qualified legal professionals in rural Nebraska. In addition, Kelly emphasized a need for improving lawyer relations with the state’s immigrant and refugee populations which he said are underserved.

Fortunately, both state institutions have implemented programs aiming to alleviate some of these head-scratching problems.

Statewide, 11 counties have no local attorneys and 19 counties have three or fewer in-town law representatives, according to information released by the Nebraska State Bar Association. Columbus and Platte County don’t fall into this statistical category – The Platte County Attorney’s Office has four representatives and numerous private practices are open around Columbus.

In an effort to showcase opportunities available outside of urban areas, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers its Rural Law Opportunities Program (RLOP) to graduating high school students.

“High school students who are interested in law can get four-year free tuition scholarships to Wayne State (College), Chadron State (College) or UNK (University of Nebraska at Kearney),” Moberly said. “And during those four years they do programming with the law school every year and our professors go out there and do programs at those schools.”

Students, he said, stay engaged with the law during their undergraduate years and if certain benchmarks – both academically and through the LSAT exam – are met they automatically gain entrance into UNL’s law program. Students eligible for the program must live outside of Douglas and Lancaster counties.

Receiving adequate legal counsel is often challenging for those living in rural towns and villages, Moberly said. Some travel hundreds of miles for representation and others don’t feel like proper attention is paid to them from out-of-town attorneys.

The idea is for program participants to develop a passion for rural law, and to practice in these communities after graduating from law school. Those who do, the dean said, can receive law school loan forgiveness.

“They will be a lot more interested and willing to go to those places after graduation,” Moberly explained.

Platte County students interested in applying or learning more information about RLOP are encouraged to visit https://law.unl.edu/RLOP/.

While RLOP benefits underserved rural Nebraska areas, Creighton University is in the second year of offering its Immigrant and Refugee Clinic through its law school. This program also helps people in desperate need of legal advice and counsel who don’t always have many financial resources and are combatting a language barrier.

Kelly said that during the university’s 36th Jesuit Order congregational meeting in 2016, Pope Francis was in attendance and reiterated the importance of fairness and justice.

“One of the central points that was made at that conference was that all the Jesuit institutions around the world need to focus on justice issues, and also on making people who are in refugee status or precarious immigration status feel welcome," he said. "Because after all, these are all of God’s children.”

In fall 2017, in conjunction with its Domestic Violence and Low-Income housing clinics, the university started offering its law students an opportunity to learn more about representing high-need clients while also receiving an empathy lesson.

Creighton has been offering area residents clinics for approximately 25 years, and the new clinic is simply an extension of that.

“We take this social justice mission very seriously and try to project that out into the community,” Kelly said. “So we partnered with a non-governmental agency, which is Justice for our Neighbors. They supply the attorneys, we supply the students. In a normal clinic setting the students work on live cases with actual clients under attorney supervision.”

Kelly added that several paralegals – many of whom are bilingual – assist to bridge the language barrier.

The program has been a massive success, Kelly said, adding that the clinic actually can’t take every case thrown its way because the demand is so high for the service.

Students have reaped the benefits of the program. They know they’ve made a real impact in a real person’s life. It’s not like assessing a fictional or old case in one of their textbooks.

“After my students naturalize their first citizen, you really can’t wipe the smile off their faces for three months,” Kelly said. 

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at Sam.Pimper@lee.net.

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