MLSA’s Rural Law Program Named One of the Best in the Nation

MLSA’s Rural Incubator Project for Lawyers (RIPL) has been selected by the Rural Justice Collaborative (RJC) Advisory Council as one of nine national Rural Innovation Sites to serve as a model for other rural justice programs throughout the nation. Established in 2018, RIPL aims to reduce the justice gap that prevents low and moderate income Montanans from accessing legal help, particularly in underserved rural communities. RIPL provides a 24-month fellowship program to train and support new attorneys interested in developing their own solo or small firm practices with the goal of increasing the number of attorneys living and practicing in rural communities. As part of the program, RIPL Fellows also provide more than 300 hours of legal assistance each year to low-income clients for free or at a modest-means rate, helping to increase the number of low and moderate income Montanans able to access legal help when they need it most.

“MLSA is thrilled to accept the Rural Innovation Site award, and humbled that other states might replicate RIPL innovations to assure fairness for rural people in the justice system, no matter their income,” says Mēghan Scott, RIPL Coordinator at Montana Legal Services Association. “Our RIPL team works hard to empower rural legal practices that reach underserved communities, bridge the widening justice gap, assist clients to prevent mounting legal and financial issues, and provide community redevelopment in rural areas.”

Leading By Example

The Rural Justice Collaborative initiative will provide resources to enable other communities to replicate the Innovation Sites’ successes. “Rural community leaders often don’t have the resources to develop programs from scratch but we know that many rural justice leaders, like those from the Montana Legal Services Association, have found innovative solutions to their complex problems. Before this, there has been no nationally concerted effort for justice leaders and their collaborators in other sectors to share what they know. The Innovation Sites provide a framework that others can build from,” said Tara Kunkel, Executive Director of Rulo Strategies, which organized the RJC in partnership with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).

Over the next three years, the RJC will work with Montana Legal Services Association to create educational materials about the Rural Incubator Project for Lawyers that it will feature in an online resource center. Thanks to funding from SJI, the RIPL program will also offer visits to leaders from other communities and participate in regional conferences. “The RJC will provide a vast knowledge pool filled with actionable content which individual communities may not have the resources to compile on their own,” said Kristina Bryant of NCSC who helps coordinate the RJC.

About the Rural Justice Collaborative

The RJC showcases the strengths of rural communities and highlights the cross-sector collaboration that is a hallmark of rural justice systems.  The work under the RJC is supported by a cross-sector advisory council composed of rural judges along with additional stakeholders in the justice, child welfare, behavioral health, and public health systems. The advisory council will guide the multi-year initiative and identify innovative programs and practices. To learn more about their work, visit their website.