The Rural Law Initiative

What is the Rural Law Initiative?

Legal services are often hard to find for people in rural communities.  An overwhelming percentage of New York attorneys locate in urban areas, leaving rural counties without convenient access to legal help.  In response, the Government Law Center formed the Rural Law Initiative.

The Rural Law Initiative is a pilot program, funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, bringing legal assistance to small and start-up businesses in rural Upstate New York.  Under the Rural Law Initiative, the Government Law Center will offer free legal education and assistance to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and farms.  Our satellite offices are located in Herkimer, Otsego, Schoharie, and Sullivan counties.

What services can the Rural Law Initiative provide?

The Rural Law Initiative can help constituents in the following areas:

  • Business formation and operation
  • Environmental law and policy
  • Land use law and policy
  • Estate planning education
  • Financial literacy 
  • New York regulations and licensing
  • Federal and state incentives for new small businesses
  • Agricultural issues

What services cannot be provided by the Rural Law Initiative?

Although the Rural Law Initiative can help with a limited scope of services, we cannot represent a participant in a legal matter before a court or other tribunal. 

Where necessary, the Rural Law Initiative will connect business owners with local practitioners to represent the businesses in a more comprehensive capacity. 

Rural Law Initiative Legal Resources

Latest Report

Satellite Offices

Herkimer County
Mohawk Valley Economic Development District
26 West Main Street
Mohawk, NY 13407

Oneida County
326 Broad Street
Utica, NY 13502

Otsego County
Otsego Now
189 Main St.
Oneonta, NY 13820

Schoharie County
SUNY Cobleskill
106 Suffolk Circle
Cobleskill, NY 12043

Sullivan County
Cornell Cooperative Extension
64 Ferndale-Loomis Rd
Liberty, NY 12754

Participation and Eligibility

If you are interested in participating in the Rural Law Initiative please complete the online registration by clicking the blue box at the top-right of this page. Because the Rural Law Initiative is a federally funded program, not all business may be eligible to participate in the program. The Government Law Center will reach out to those participants who do not meet eligibility standards to guide them to other free or low cost legal resources.

For reporting purposes, we may ask participants to respond to surveys measuring the effectiveness of the program.

In 2019, the Government Law Center issued an important report, which was part of the Center's Rural Law Initiative, analyzed the practice of law in the state's rural counties, a topic that had not previously been examined in recent times.

The report was based on a survey of those lawyers who could be identified as practicing in rural communities. This survey, which contained questions about their practice and how it was meeting the legal needs of the communities they served, was mailed to those lawyers who could be identified as practicing in target communities.

The Government Law Center reviewed their responses and summarized them in the report. The New York State Bar Association then followed by creating its own task force on rural law practice, which examined the report and issued its own report with substantive recommendations. All of this was intended to bring attention to the matters discussed in both reports, with the hope that they would be considered by those officials who were in a position to take steps to resolve the problems identified.

The Government Law Center report focused on four issues:

  1. What are rural practices like?
  2. The rewards and challenges of rural practice,
  3. Is there a shortage of lawyers in rural New York?
  4. Possible solutions.

There were several conclusions that were reached. The lawyers surveyed were generally engaged in "small, self-owned general practices." Over half "are on the verge of retiring, or will be approaching the age of retirement within 10 to 20 years." Basically, young lawyers are needed to establish practices in these communities.

A majority of the lawyers responding "agreed that rural clients struggle to afford legal services. Serving this demographic - the working poor - which appear to be a large portion of rural residents, should be of primary concern for all stakeholders…." The question left open was what happens next.

Recently, we have begun to get the answer. Three bills were introduced in the New York State Legislature that begin to address the topic. They are narrow in scope and deal with only small segments of what is needed. All would begin to address the critical need to serve those residents with limited incomes. However, viewed in a larger scope, this is a strong indication that the issues raised in the Government Law Center's initial report have made their way into the legislative process. These issues are at least at the initial stages of legislative consideration.

The three bills are different in specifics, but all, if enacted, would reduce the cost of legal services to those living in the rural areas of the state. S. 5292 would help those in writing their wills. Section 2402 of the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act now authorizes individual wills to be filed and stored in the Surrogate's Court of the county in which the person signing the will resides. This is an important function, as it allows easy access to the will at the time that person dies. Currently, the court may charge $45 for this service, although each court can lower or eliminate the charge. This bill would totally eliminate the charge for this service. Thus, the cost of having a will prepared and stored will be lower.

The second bill – S. 5293 – would allow the court system to reduce the costs of litigation in the town and village courts, which serve mainly rural areas.  Section 2111 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules authorizes the Chief Administrative Judge of the state court system to permit the filing and serving of papers by electronic means in the courts designated in that statute. This bill would authorize this practice in the town and village courts which could result in reducing the cost of litigation in these courts. If the bill is enacted, the Chief Administrative Judge would then be able to authorize the filing of papers by electronic means. This would eliminate the need for an attorney to travel to the courthouse, often a long trip in rural areas, to file required papers. The attorney would no longer need to charge clients for travel time, thereby reducing the cost of an attorney's services. It also saves time for an individual who is self-represented.