Two programs aimed at expanding access to justice in Nebraska’s rural and underserved communities have earned the University of Nebraska’s Inclusive Excellence Collaboration Award.
The award was created to honor sustained, outstanding contributions in diversity and inclusion between two or more University of Nebraska academic and/or administrative units or campuses. Honorees must demonstrate proven outcomes in advancing priorities that move the university system toward inclusive excellence.
The shortage of attorneys in rural Nebraska means that people may have to drive hundreds of miles for legal assistance. The Rural Law Opportunities Program aims to ensure that all Nebraskans have access to legal representation by encouraging the practice of law in the state’s rural communities. Through the program, students from certain Nebraska areas will study at one of three Nebraska State Colleges or Universities, obtain their legal education at Nebraska Law and then practice in rural areas throughout the state. The program was established through a partnership between the University of Nebraska College of Law and Chadron State College, the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Wayne State College.
The Underserved Law Opportunities Program aims to provide the opportunity for a legal education for students in underserved communities, and the encourage students to provide legal services to those communities. Nebraska continues to have a need for bilingual attorneys and attorneys willing to practice law in the public interest. Through the program, students will study at the University of Nebraska Omaha, obtain their legal education at Nebraska Law and then practice in areas traditionally underserved by the legal community.
“I love the idea of producing lawyers that go advance justice in underserved areas,” said Richard Moberly, law dean. “What this is doing is helping us build that pipeline of students who are interested in that from the very beginning. They come here and get a great legal education and then hopefully will go back out into Nebraska to represent people who need it the most.”
In 2015, when thoughts of the Rural Law Opportunities Program first began, 11 Nebraska counties had zero attorneys, and 20 had three or fewer. By June of 2017, 12 Nebraska counties had zero attorneys, and 18 had three or fewer. The shortage of attorneys means that communities not only lack lawyers and judges, but also important leaders for schools, community organizations and businesses. Not long after th3 Rural Law Opportunities Program began, the University of Nebraska Omaha and the University of Nebraska College of Law developed the Underserved Law Opportunities Program. Although specific data was not available at the time the program was developed, there was no question that Nebraska had, and continues to have, a need for bilingual attorneys.
Each year students in both programs visit the law school to meet one another, visit a law school class, and observe a court conducting real appellate oral arguments — all of which have been done virtually in 2020. In addition, representatives from the College of Law meet with each of the participating schools and speak about legal education and legal issues, sometimes in conjunction with practicing lawyers or current law students. The College of Law also provides opportunities for mentorship from current law students and from practicing lawyers working in rural areas or with non-profit and public interest organizations.
Winners of the Inclusive Excellence Collaboration Award are selected by a committee representing the four NU campuses and the community. Honored units or campuses are awarded $25,000 to support diversity, access and inclusion efforts. The College of Law, University of Nebraska at Kearney Department of Political Science and University of Nebraska Omaha Division of Student Success will use the award to develop additional opportunities for students in these programs.