Innovative ways to support legal deserts in Colorado

In the legal landscape of Colorado, a striking revelation emerges from data reported by the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel: in 2020, half of Colorado’s counties had fewer than 25 practicing attorneys. Compounding the shortage, the COARC found that 42% of all attorneys in Colorado practice in Denver County alone. This geographic imbalance underscores the scarcity of legal resources in numerous regions of our state – a phenomenon known as ‘legal deserts.’ These are areas where residents have limited access to legal services, a challenge most commonly found in rural areas.

Access to legal services is an important part of rural public health and healthy aging. In a study by the University of Minnesota Medical School, the authors state that “the most common type of legal issue low-income rural residents report is access to health care.” Medical-legal partnerships can support rural residents with navigating problems relating to health insurance, medical costs, and elder abuse. In this blog, we will discuss innovative approaches that address legal deserts in Colorado and other states.

Barriers to receiving legal services

There are many barriers to receiving legal services for residents living in rural areas. First, some residents may not have access to transportation to meet with an attorney. Second, financial constraints could make the services of an attorney unattainable for some individuals. According to the Colorado Rural Health Center, the median rural household income is 29% lower than that in urban households. This income discrepancy highlights not only why attorneys tend to practice in urban areas, but also why rural residents may struggle to afford to hire an attorney. Additionally, some residents may also have limited access to a reliable internet connection to readily communicate with an attorney. Language barriers compound these difficulties, with rural residents who are not fluent in English facing challenges in finding an attorney they can easily communicate with in their area.

Legal resources

However, recognizing the significance of these challenges, Colorado has implemented programs to support residents living in rural areas requiring legal assistance. Currently, over 50 Colorado public libraries host local Virtual Pro Se Clinics in which a person can meet with a volunteer attorney privately for free legal advice through a video chatting platform. These clinics specifically serve people who do not currently have an attorney. At the clinic, people can ask questions related to a wide range of civil legal issues, including family law, civil litigation, property law, probate law, collections, appeals, landlord-tenant law, veteran’s benefits, and civil protection orders.

The Colorado Judicial Branch also hosts statewide virtual clinics, which can support people who need legal advice for topics pertaining to collecting a judgment, divorce, custody, sealing of records, and guardian- and conservatorship. Small businesses can also receive an hour-long free consultation with volunteer lawyers through the Small Business Legal Assistance Program.

The Colorado Judicial Branch also has created a website that provides free information regarding general civil law, family law, and probate law called the Checkerboard. The Checkerboard not only covers a variety of legal topics, but also provides resources that are easy to understand for those unfamiliar with legal terms and processes. The Checkerboard also includes links and videos to assist with filling out court forms properly.

Legal programs across the U.S.

While Colorado currently has several free legal clinics to serve its residents, it does not have a program to incentivize lawyers to practice in rural areas, like some other states do. For example, South Dakota’s Rural Attorney Recruitment Program, initiated in 2013, paid attorneys to move to rural communities and practice there for five years. At Drake Law School in Iowa, students can receive a stipend for spending their summer internship in a rural community. In Washington, residents can earn a Limited License Legal Technician certification by the Washington Supreme Court. This certification allows a non-attorney resident to provide legal assistance to others concerning family law, completing court documents, and attending court for people who are representing themselves. Technicians often assist people who are unable to pay for an attorney.

Although Colorado has yet to implement the aforementioned programs, the Colorado Supreme Court announced a plan to develop a legal paraprofessional licensure for family law matters (similar to Washington’s legal technician program), which is projected to launch in 2024. The legal paraprofessional licensure is one potential solution to support legal deserts in rural Colorado.


  • Legal deserts are areas where residents have limited access to legal services, a challenge most commonly found in rural areas.
  • Barriers to receiving legal services include transportation, affordability, language barriers, and having a reliable internet connection.
  • Volunteer attorneys can provide legal advice for free to Colorado residents through Virtual Pro Se Clinics, which are hosted in over 50 public libraries across Colorado.
  • The Checkerboard is a website where Colorado residents can receive information related to laws and legal processes.
  • Colorado is currently working on a plan to implement a legal paraprofessional licensure, which would allow non-attorneys the ability to provide some legal services to those who are unable to afford an attorney.

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Rachel Washburn is a senior majoring in health and exercise science with a minor in gerontology at CSU. She is currently working as a student ambassador at CSU’s Center for Healthy Aging.