UWâ€™s Rural Law Center brings focus to rural placesWritten by Christy Hemken
Center Director Alan Romero, UW Professor of Law, says the center’s mission is threefold, including providing services to lawyers who practice law in rural areas, preparing students for practicing and serving in rural areas and encouraging and facilitating scholarly research concerning rural legal issues.
“Our goals correspond to the general mission of most law schools, but with a rural interest,” notes Romero.
The Rural Law Center discussion began a couple years ago, says Romero, as a part of the five-year academic plan running from 2009 through 2014. “It was included in the university’s plan last year, and we took the first step by formally establishing the Center at the end of last school year,” he explains.
The Rural Law Center concept grew out of the recognition that UW is uniquely situated for rural law work. “The distinctive issues rural places face haven’t drawn a lot of focused attention in the legal world,” says Romero. “Unlike other academic disciplines where there are recognized specialties and focus on rural matters.”
“One of the few areas where there has been substantial scholarly attention is the provision of legal services and available lawyers to represent clients in rural places,” says Romero. “I think health care is a big rural issue that has not really drawn a lot of attention about the related legal issues, although law and medicine is a growing area of interdisciplinary study.”
Romero says he also thinks the energy industry is important in rural law, “Because so much of energy development and surface owners are in rural areas.”
For the near future the Center will use existing resources to coordinate things within faculty and across campus that are connected through a common rural focus. “We want to create connections that otherwise might not have been made,” comments Romero. “We want to connect those subjects that have rural issues as a common denominator.”
Romero says the Center’s plan is to sponsor some kind of a conference this year, as well as a speaker. “Some events may be more outreach to the public and lawyers, while others may be more scholarly in nature. I’d like to see one of each every year. Considering the nature of Rural Law Center, I think there will be a lot of opportunities for conferences co-sponsored with other colleges and departments.”
On the long-term agenda are classes and courses developed in the law school with a rural focus. For now, Romero says, “We’re small faculty with a small student body so adding courses is tricky and we already have a good selection of courses that meet that need.”
“One of our plans is to provide some kind of service function to rural lawyers that can be educational for students,” says Romero of an internship/externship idea. “It would connect students with rural practitioners so they could experience that kind of practice and provide a service to people practicing in those areas.”
The Center’s website will also host content on issues of particular concern in rural areas and to rural people. “We’re working on a legislative research service that would involve students soliciting projects from counties, public interest organizations, etc. and researching and drafting legislation or other things connected with policy issues in rural places,” notes Romero, giving the severance of wind rights from surface ownership as an example.
“One possibility for the Center’s future is an actual clinical service where we could represent people,” says Romero, noting it’s not even in the works right now.
“Our plan is primarily to serve a function to the public as a clearinghouse, where our site will point people in the appropriate directions. It will contain short guides for laypeople about different kinds of legal issues they may encounter, and point them to resources,” he says.
Of the semester ahead, Romero says the immediate tasks are to get the Center’s website running, co-sponsor a conference in November themed “The State of the Dominant Estate” at the Law School in Laramie and get a good start on the legislative research program.
“I think this is a unique undertaking, there have been law schools in the past that have tried something like this, but it’s uncharted,” says Romero. “This will be an evolving work in progress. There are so many different activities we could engage in and areas of substantive interest, like criminal issues, health care, business and entrepreneurial issues, as well as agriculture, environment and energy.”
Romero says he hopes the Center will be shaped from the outside by feedback. “We want to get a sense of what kinds of things are needed by the people we aim to serve,” he says. “The more people are aware of it and the more feedback we get about beneficial topics, the better.”