A Look at the Lives of Five Rural Lawyers

By Joan Fucillo

A Look at the Lives of Five Rural Lawyers

State Bar News recently spoke with five attorneys from rural areas about the journeys that brought them to small-town New York and the challenges their practices face.

Judith Pareira

Judy Pareira had been a pediatric endocrinology nurse in Manhattan for 20 years when she decided to go to law school.

“I went to St. John’s University School of Law in the night program,” she said. “It was just a few blocks from my house.”

The part-time program was ideal as she was pregnant with her son and still working at what is now New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

In 1989, when their son turned three, she and her husband moved to Saranac Lake where they had a summer home. With a law license and a master’s degree in nursing, Pareira easily found work with a personal injury firm in Malone, NY. In 2002, she left to open her law office. It is fitting given her background that Pareira’s law office is in one of Saranac Lake’s many tuberculosis ‘cure cottages.’ From the late 1870s through the 1940s, Saranac Lake was a center for TB research and patient care.

A rural law practice

“This is what a rural law practice looks like,” said Pareira, smiling as she gestured to the stacks of files on her conference room table.

She left the law firm, she said, because she wanted to get back to doing what she loved best – advocating for people. She became an attorney for the child, and then began taking assigned counsel cases in Family Court.

“Nursing and the law is a common combination,” she said. “We are advocates for our clients and our patients. The law and nursing fit well together.”

The master’s in nursing program at New York University focused on creativity and learning to think outside the box. This serves her well as a lawyer, as does her pediatric medical experience. She observes the children she sees and will suggest to parents when a child may benefit from medical attention.

While Pareira can assist clients in a number of areas – “No real estate” – her main focus is on the assigned counsel work. Her private clients are mostly divorce cases.

As assigned counsel, she has more work than she can handle. Once, a judge asked her to stay for an arraignment, as the other attorneys in court that day were “conflicted out.” Although she already had a large caseload, that person became a client.

“I could have handed the client back into the system after the arraignment,” she said, noting that the ethical standards for assigned counsel meant that handling the arraignment did not create an attorney-client relationship.

“But I couldn’t,” she said.”For me, that arraignment meant I had started working with that client. And once I do, I believe it is my responsibility to represent that client.”

Pareira is in court almost daily. The county line runs through the heart of Saranac Lake so she has clients in Franklin and Essex counties. The drive to each county seat takes about an hour.

The rules differ from county to county in small but significant ways. It can be hard to keep track.

“I keep reminding myself that it’s the ‘Unified’ Court System, not the ‘Uniform’ Court System,” she said.

Unique client issues and the law of unintended consequences

As more courts require e-filing and encourage videoconferencing for efficiency and cost-savings, steady access to the internet will be an even greater issue for attorneys and their clients. As of now, however, technology doesn’t work that well for Pareira’s clients. For example, cellphones do not always increase access to their attorney.

Before cellphones, Pareira explained, “I could call a client and leave a message on their answering machine.” Now everyone has a cellphone but many clients have not set up voicemail, and they often run out of minutes. With a landline or a monthly plan, if a bill isn’t paid on time there is a grace period. But when a person runs out of minutes, the phone stops.

Meeting with clients can also be difficult. Public transportation is rarely a viable alternative. Often indigent clients cannot make a meeting because they cannot afford a car, can’t afford to fix it, don’t have money for gas, can’t find a ride or don’t have a driver’s license.

There also is the issue of where to meet. Pareira can get a secure meeting space in the courthouse in Elizabethtown, in Essex County, but there is no similar opportunity in Malone, in Franklin County.

Broadband, retirement, attracting new lawyers

Pareira is one of four lawyers in Saranac Lake. Two are looking to retire, but she is not.

“I love what I do,” she said.

But she is fully aware of the issues attracting new lawyers to the area. She believes that the county bar associations could be more proactive about marketing the area to young attorneys – “vacation paradise, nature, recreation” – and look more deeply into the federal loan forgiveness programs and how that can be advantageous to young attorneys who are willing to do the type of work she does.

“There is money to be made up here,” she said, “and there is need. People are not getting represented.”

Broadband and internet access is a big issue for rural lawyers. She has service at her office but when it is spotty, it really slows things down. And if she is at home, “I know where the hot spots are,” said Pareira. “There’s one in my driveway that I can count on.”

One of the Family Court judges requires that attorneys appear via conference call if they cannot appear in court. “I have to tell the judge that if the call is scheduled when I am driving between courts, I can’t count on having continuous cell reception throughout the call” and suggest that the judge reschedule.

Competition for attorneys is a factor, she said.As new court positions open,she sees more clerks being hired.Some attorneys will leave practice or a county job for one with the court system. As an example, Pareira pointed to unfilled attorney positions in Franklin County’s public defender’s office and social services.

She also hopes that, like her, people may consider law as a second career, which she thinks may help alleviate some of the rural justice crisis. She described her experience in night school at St. John’s as fun and stimulating and wondered whether an all-online law school, such as Syracuse University College of Law’s JDinteractive program, lose something in the process.

“You get socialization through interacting with fellow students and in your study groups,” she said. “Teaching the Socratic method might not be as effective through live chat.”


Paul Roalsvig

Paul Roalsvig is a solo practitioner in Long Lake, NY. He moved to the area after 14 years of practicing primarily immigration law in and around New York City. “My wife, having grown up in Long Lake, was always a Long Laker,” he said. And when she was offered a good job in her hometown, the family decided to move.

“I couldn’t have built a new solo practice in this area cold,” he said. “If you want to do something like this, the non-attorney spouse has to be the breadwinner for a time.”

From Immigration Law to a Rural Mix

Roalsvig’s immigration practice in New York City covered a range of areas: business and corporate petitions; green cards for family-based immigrants; defending green card holders who had gotten into trouble with the law; and asylum cases from West Africa.

“I had to use my high school French,” he noted.

Now the immigration work that comes his way consists of marriage-based green cards, fiancé visas, change of status and extension of status applications and the occasional Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petition cases brought by immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens who have been abused. He noted that VAWA cases are becoming more difficult, as the financial requirements for success are more stringent. Roalsvig also works per diem on green card or citizenship interviews for other law firms.

He sometimes gets calls from the family member of an individual who has been detained at the Clinton County Correctional Facility (CCCF). Bail for such detainees can be set by Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement at incredibly high rates, like $30,000. The amount is arbitrary, says Roalsvig. If the individual has been only recently detained, he advises the family member to wait a few days. Immigrants detained at CCCF will get transferred to the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia and will see an immigration judge, who will usually set bail at a fraction of that amount. If need be, Roalsvig will arrange a meeting with the family member in Saranac Lake, halfway between CCCF and Long Lake.

Roalsvig’s knowledge and background bring a mix of work. The bulk of his work is as a witness signer and notary for a large lending company. It has become more difficult to get a bank loan for refinancing and businesses like Quicken Loans fill that need.

“I bring the bank documents and I check IDs and explain the nature of the documents if lendees have questions about what they are signing,” he said.

Roalsvig does three or four a week, covering an area that extends north of Interstate 90 to the Canadian border. He also handles real estate matters and works per diem in foreclosure cases, participating in mortgage modification conferences.

He is an impartial hearing officer for the state Department of Education, similar to an administrative law judge, for people who have been denied their rights to vocational rehabilitation services and are appealing an adverse decision by that agency. And Roalsvig represents defendants in local criminal court (assigned counsel, tickets, DWIs) as well as other local town courts and county court. Lastly, he represents debtors filing bankruptcy petitions.

“There is always something to do,” Roalsvig said. “It’s the right amount of work for a one-man operation.”

Still, Roalsvig’s work is mostly transactional, because in a small town it is easy to run into a conflict of interest, which makes a litigation practice difficult.

“How does the plaintiff find a lawyer in the area who doesn’t have a conflict?” he said. “A plaintiff would have to go to Syracuse or Utica.” It’s a major burden on local plaintiffs because local attorneys can’t represent them.

Roalsvig stopped doing contested divorces because the travel was onerous.

“There is no state Supreme Court seat in Hamilton County,” said Roalsvig. “We have to go to Johnstown in Fulton County, nearly a two-hour drive. No local plaintiff can really afford all that extra time and expense,” he added.

One solution, Roalsvig suggests, might be to “allow county courts to do contested divorces.” He added that he thought it made sense because family court matters can be heard at the county level and parties in northern Hamilton County have easier access to the county seat, which is only an hour away.

Technology

A local cable provider brings internet to his home office, although the rest of his home has the more reliable fiber optic service. Yet, from a business standpoint, Roalsvig believes that changing his email address to reflect the fiber optic service provider would be problematic.

“Everything in our house has battery backup, and of course we have surge protection,” he said, just as the lights flickered and his computer went dead for several seconds. “It’s an issue with the grid.” It was a calm and sunny day, with no wind, and no discernible reason for the interruption.

Recently the area got a new cell carrier, which has been greatly beneficial.

“My old service worked in Long Lake, but not in Elizabethtown, the Essex County seat, or in the larger towns close by like Tupper Lake or Indian Lake or even Newcomb,” Roalsvig said. “Now, I can make cell phone calls in all those towns and get and reply to emails on my phone.”

Equipment breakdowns are more difficult to get resolved in a rural area. When Roalsvig’s office printer/scanner broke down, “It was the worst three weeks of my professional life,” he said.

While he waited for the service call and help from Plattsburgh, he ordered a small emergency backup printer from Staples. The old machine was unsalvageable and now he has a new one. But Roalsvig has kept the backup, just in case.

Home

Roalsvig’s office and home are in a pre-Civil War home on the Main Street. The office has stacks of files, boxes of music CDs made with his local band, a wall of vinyl records, awards for best costume and best plunge from the annual Long Lakey Polar Bear Plunge and his maternal grandfather’s paintings of his home in Stavanger, Norway. The Norway paintings are arranged to give a panoramic view of the land surrounding the cottage.

Roalsvig does not anticipate retiring, as he likes what he does. He admits that there are dead periods – “like mud season – March and April” – but work always picks back up in May. And he likes being able to take a day off from work when he wants to go hiking or cross-country skiing. But he does see the limitations of the area, and outside of its beauty, how do people get by?

In this area, he said, the major employers are hotels, motels and restaurants; the state Department of Transportation (DOT); and Sunmount, New York state’s assisted living program that houses the physically disabled people, those adjudicated insane, as well as criminals with mental illness.

Roalsvig served on the local school board, was a substitute teacher and volunteered as a hockey coach. He has observed that the local high school graduates – following in their parents’ footsteps — tend to work in restaurants, join the military, or work for DOT or Sunmount.

Very few young people in the area go to college for a full four-year degree, let alone advanced degrees. Roalsvig noted that high school graduation classes at Long Lake can be as small as one or as large as nine, with an average of three to five. He said that Long Lake “is the tiniest school system in the state.”

Music

Roalsvig, a musician with a wide range of musical styles and inspirations, calls himself a “campfire troubadour – I know a lot of songs.” He and his band, “The Dark Marbles,” recently completed a garage-rock CD, a 60s British pop tribute, and are now working on a “more roots-oriented album. Less drum, more of a folk or folk-rock influence with perhaps some mandolin and banjo,” said Roalsvig.

In college and law school, Roalsvig was in two bar bands that were legendary in the Buffalo area during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One – Splatcats – opened for the Ramones when they played at SUNY Fredonia, and another – JackLords – opened for Roy Orbison, at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo.

Roalsvig is a regular in the Long Lake music scene and enjoys the open mic nights. He makes an annual pilgrimage to Buffalo to work with local musicians at a gig that includes a six-song tribute to Lou Reed.


Milo Primeaux: A Virtual Practice

“If five years ago you had bet me a million dollars that I would have a virtual private law practice on a sheep farm in the middle of nowhere, I wouldn’t have taken the bet. And I’d be out a million dollars,” said Milo Primeaux from his home in Livingston County, NY.

Primeaux knew he was taking a risk when he left a steady paycheck to go solo. He loved what he was doing at a nonprofit in Rochester but the hour-long commute was wearing and he felt that “it was time to try this on my own” to focus on LGBTQ+ issues.

Primeaux runs a civil rights practice. He handles a lot of name changes for transgender New Yorkers. “It’s a subset of legal work in the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. He also takes on discrimination cases in health care and employment.

“It’s not lucrative, but it is the reason why I went to law school, the reason why I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said.

Yet, he noted, “My practice has always been in the black. Right now, my caseload is full. I cannot even accept new clients,” adding that he tries to give “advice, counsel and referrals” to anyone who contacts him.

A Practice with a Larger Mission

Even large cities do not have enough resources to serve the LGBTQ+ community but rural communities are vastly under-resourced, said Primeaux.

“Except for New York City and Long Island, my clients come from every county across Upstate New York where folks still cannot locally access the help and resources they need.” He added that it is disappointing but not shocking.

“There are lawyers who just will not take on employment or other discrimination cases for LGBTQ+ people,” he said. Few private attorneys handle name changes for transgender people – a relatively easy process – for less than $2,000, and “it’s just too much for many of these folks.” And if the clients make more than the 150%-300% of the poverty level, they don’t qualify for free legal services.

To break this unfair logjam, Primeaux decided to charge a sliding scale fee for a name change. He does not ask for documentation.

“I have found that people are quite honest when we discuss what they can afford and are excited to contribute what they can to their own name change process,” he said.

He also takes discrimination cases on a contingency basis.

“This way, we are in it together,” he said. “We do our best. Even if we don’t win, my clients feel empowered by standing up for themselves and having an attorney stand up with them.”

Primeaux’s long-term goal is clear: “My goal, and it’s a lofty one, is to make myself obsolete. That is, where anyone can at any time call an attorney anywhere and get the access, respect and representation they deserve, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Too often, Primeaux said, LGBTQ+ people believe that they are powerless – that discrimination in the workplace, or harassment, name-calling and property damage to their homes is just the price they pay for being who they are.

“No, it’s not,” he asserted.

Even if Primeaux cannot take a case, he ensures that callers know their rights and know how to exercise them,what they can do pro se and how to file a claim with the state’s Division of Human Rights. A successful claimant can win money but also demand mandatory cultural humility training for staff, institute new equitable personnel policies, or even get an apology.

Vandalism and harassment in urban areas might make headlines. But in a small town, if the harassment is from a neighbor, the local police might have the attitude that neighbors should just work it out and turn a blind eye to the injustice.

“We are very fortunate in New York state to have really clear protections in place,” Primeaux said, citing the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act passed in early 2019, which also adds transgender New Yorkers to those protected by the state’s hate crimes law.

But, he admits, “figuring out how to handle these situations is tricky.” In extreme cases, “people have been driven out of their homes and communities for lack of resources to address or mediate the issues.”

A Virtual Practice in a World Without Broadband

Lacking access to broadband – even basic cable – affects life as a virtual law practitioner. The area is too often overcast, making a satellite dish an unreliable option. Primeaux can’t use public wi-fi because of potential for data compromise. He and his partner, who also works from home, buy the maximum amount of data they can from their cell service provider and utilize hotspots on their phones and other devices to get their work done. The upside: “It encourages efficiency.I run a very lean and efficient practice,” said Primeaux.

Because Primeaux’s clients can be anywhere in the state, he says that e-filing is very helpful. It saves time, travel and when it works, it is quick and easy. But some counties have not yet switched to e-filing and others who use e-filing still want hard copies of all e-filed paper. This places a burden on solo practitioners and rural attorneys working with less resources.

“It’s time to make it universal for all courts,” said Primeaux.

Getting Help When You Need It

Primeaux never thought about opening a law practice, intending to spend his working life at a nonprofit legal services organization. So classes on the business of law didn’t much interest him. Now that he has his own business, he has found his bar membership invaluable in climbing the learning curve. He “leaned into” the Monroe County Bar Association in Rochester, especially its Solo and Small Practice Committee. There he gets help, advice, mentorship and networking opportunities. It also offers conference space for client meetings and quiet places to work. This support, he says, allowed him to take the risk.

Living a Rural Life

As someone with a virtual practice who could be working anywhere –who is in such demand that he is turning away cases, yet is putting up with the lack of services — why Livingston County? Why farming?

“I know.It was a dream. We started with six Icelandic sheep in 2017. Now we have 45. It is so wonderful to birth the lambs and help them grow. We sell breeding stock to other farms, sell their fleece for spinning and fiber, and sell the meat,” said Primeaux.

“It’s unusual in our area, having a queer-owned farm. We are mindful of how different small-town life is. Our home is very well-known because of the Canadian couple who built it from nothing. They added a barn, dug a pond, landscaped the property and planted thousands of bulbs,” he said, adding “it’s a beautiful place to live and work.”


Leonard E. Sienko, Jr.

When Lenny Sienko graduated law school in 1978, he and a few friends had planned on opening a practice in Maine. “They decided to not risk it and to make money instead. I went to the only place that has to take you when there is nowhere else to go – I went home,” said Sienko.

Home was Hancock, NY, a small town on the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania border. That was 41 years ago.

Sienko’s solo career is that of a classic small-town lawyer. He has done personal injury, accidents, wills, real estate, business transactions, matrimonial actions, individuals with disabilities, criminal and all types of litigation.

“But a rural law practice is always a series of things,” he said. “You have your practice, and you cobble together a series of part-time jobs. I was a Delaware County estate tax attorney, a court attorney in the trial part of the county court and an adjunct professor at SUNY Delhi. I’ve been the town attorney for 29 years.”

Being a lawyer in a rural area means being diligent about conflicts.

“It’s easy in small communities to just keep running into each other,” he said. “But it’s not difficult to screen out or disclose.” He doesn’t do legal work for the town planning board, for example, but he does work with the fire department.

The work of a town attorney includes finding outside advice and counsel. When the village closed the volunteer ambulance corps, the town needed to step in and establish a paid ambulance service. Sienko brought in an emergency services attorney to assist the town in providing that service.

Tech Guru

Sienko has a unique place in the firmament of small-town lawyers. He is something of a tech guru – constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to work, testing and reviewing products that make a solo general practitioner’s juggling act easier. He was one of the original tech-evangelists at the New York State Bar Association, recalling that in a meeting in 1993, when he and NYSBA’s then-Law Practice Management Director Steve Gallagher urged the association to develop a web page, they were nearly laughed out of the room. The idea had come from a conference that Gallagher and Sienko had attended at the then-year-old Legal Information Institute (LII), an independently funded project of Cornell Law School.

Sienko’s embrace of technology is at least partly rooted in the serendipity of his law office. About nine years after he moved back home, he bought the Hancock Telephone Co. building, which was for sale because it was erecting a larger office next door. As they expanded their services, the company kept his building up-to-date. This enabled Sienko to be the first lawyer in Delaware County to have email and a website.

The now 100-year-old and still family-owned company received a state grant to bring fiber optic cable service to the town. With some private funding as well, Hancock TelCo completed the project in April 2019, connecting more than 1,600 homes and businesses in this previously underserved area. This is unusual in a rural area, and Sienko knows it.

Sienko presents to groups of lawyers about how they can use tech in their offices. A past chair of NYSBA’s General Practice Law Section (GP), which was cut short due to illness, he is a contributing editor of the section’s weekly wEbrief, an electronic newsletter that aggregates legal stories, tech news and court decisions. He also writes for the Senior Lawyer, the newsletter of NYSBA’s Senior Lawyer Section. Sienko has a full suite of devices – a Mac, an iPad, an Apple Watch and an iPhone with the latest AirPods.

When Paper Ruled

Sienko does not miss the “good old days” of paper. The nearest law library was 40 miles away, so an office library was essential.

“My books cost more than my office mortgage,” he said. “I never got a Pennsylvania law license because I couldn’t afford two sets of law books.” He hasn’t bought a set of law books since he got online in 1993, relying instead on resources such as Google Legal Scholar, which publishes primary source law materials, as well as citation services.

Winding Down a Practice, Crisis in Rural Law

Sienko has cut back on his practice in recent years, dropping the criminal defense, litigation and matrimonial work that can entail an hour-and-a-half commute to Cooperstown, the closest state Supreme Court Chambers handling matrimonials. His focus now is on transactional legal work, such as real estate and wills. Hancock is a bit over two hours from New York City and people began buying second homes in the area after 9/11. The real estate business is still very good.

He also wonders who will take over his practice. There are few lawyers ready to move into a practice like his. Sienko attributes this, at least in part, to the crushing debt many lawyers carry from law school.

That $200,000-a-year associate fresh out of law school? “That’s the exception, not the rule,” he observed, adding that the median salary for an attorney in the United States is much, much less.

“There has to be some way for lawyers to be able to finance taking over a brick-and-mortar practice but they can’t get loans” because their money is already committed to servicing their debt, Sienko said. And lawyers who want to transition out of their practices “have all their money tied up in their buildings and their homes” and can’t retire unless someone can buy them out.

He notes that when towns lack a local doctor, some have recruited and subsidized a physician, with things like housing, staff and insurance. “Why not do something similar to attract legal talent?” he added.

“When I began practicing in Hancock, there was a calendar call every Monday and all the lawyers would be at the county seat in Delhi. We’d get our schedules and then we’d all go out to lunch,” he said. “It was great for me as a young lawyer and good for the older lawyers too.”

When the individual assignment system replaced the calendar call, attorneys no longer came to court on Monday mornings and no longer had their lunches. While the change may have created greater efficiencies, the regular contact with other attorneys and judges was lost.

NYSBA’s Senior Lawyers Section hosts periodic “gatherings” with the Young Lawyers Section where older and younger lawyers work together to find ways to help each other, including looking at retirement and succession. Sienko admitted that he would have little contact with young lawyers were it not for the gatherings.

Formalizing what was once an organic process is not easy but Sienko sees hope.

“We need each other, and we have a lot to offer each other,” he said.


Julie Garcia

Julie Garcia believes each twist and turn in her life brought her where she needs to be.

She is a “North Country girl,” one of six children growing up in Witherbee, NY. After high school, she took on a number of jobs in her quest to go to college.

“I worked in the paper mill, I was a secretary, receptionist, worked at a clothing store, took bartending, catering and waitressing jobs to put myself through school,” said Garcia. “It took 14 years.”

Years after attending Hudson Valley Community College, Garcia applied to Siena College, but her application was rejected, and her confidence faltered. She was bolstered by a timely push from a mentor, who informed her that she could appeal Siena’s decision. “She said, ‘You have to learn to advocate for yourself – tell Siena why they should take you,'” Garcia recalled. Garcia begged them to reconsider, and they did, accepting her on a probationary basis.

In 1995 she graduated from Siena College cum laude with a degree in social work and began looking for employment in the field. Though jobs were available, the pay was scant. As a result, Garcia began thinking about getting her master’s degree in social work, but instead, decided on law school.

“I thought I could do as much good as a lawyer as I could as a social worker,” she said.

She graduated from Albany Law School in 1999 and, on the advice of Professor Peter Preiser, looked for a job in a large district attorney’s office. She got an offer from the Suffolk County DA, and she accepted. Long Island was a culture shock.

“As someone from the North Country it was alien to me,” said Garcia.

But she adjusted, and had the opportunity to handle some interesting cases, including one involving Christopher Rocancourt, a con man in the Hamptons who was posing as a Rockefeller.

Going Home

“I saw myself as a career prosecutor in Suffolk,” she said.

But after 18 months on Long Island, tragedy suddenly called Garcia back home. Her mother had died an addiction-related death, and Garcia was deeply concerned for her younger sister, who was also struggling with drug addiction. Garcia’s employer, District Attorney James Catterson, aided her relocation by recommending her for a position in the Rensselaer County District Attorney’s office. In February 2001, she moved to Troy and helped get her sister into treatment for substance abuse. Only seven months later, Garcia’s sister also succumbed to the disease, leaving her three small children behind.

Garcia moved back to the North Country after her sister’s death – first to Warren County, then to Essex. Garcia had obtained custody of her sister’s two youngest children and wanted to raise the girls near family. She took a risk and opened a solo practice focused on criminal and family law, renting office space from other lawyers.

“I was completely unafraid – I feel I was in survival mode after what had happened to my mother and sister,” she said.

Due to the devastation that Garcia and her family experienced, she was driven to tackle the drug problem in Essex County. Believing the problem was not being properly addressed, she discussed her concerns with the Essex County District Attorney. He suggested that if she felt things should be done differently, she should run against him. And so, she did.

“My message was heartfelt and personal; I believe that helped persuade the voters in Essex County to vote for me.” She won in 2006, but lost re-election in 2010 by a slim margin.

Drug Problems

The drug problem in Essex County has grown far worse with the influx of opioids.

“There were about 5,000 opioid-related deaths across the country in 2001, now it’s more like 60,000,” Garcia said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 70,237 people died of an overdose in 2017, with opioids being the main cause.

Garcia admits that her approach to drug enforcement has changed, in part due to the realization that sometimes dealing goes hand-in-hand with using.

“Often people who are using are also selling so they can feed their addiction,” she noted. Additionally, “treating addiction in rural Essex County is different than in other areas,” said Garcia, because “many inpatient treatment facilities are very far from home,” which is isolating.

“You leave your family, your support network. People have to take a day off from work to visit,” Garcia remarked. “And there are gaps in the availability of services in rural areas. Also, it is common for clients to need a higher level of care than what might have worked 20 years ago.”

Getting and Giving Representation

Garcia has an office in Warrensburg and a satellite office in Port Henry. For many of her clients, poverty is an issue. People who make just a little too much money to qualify for assigned counsel are still not able to afford an attorney. And laws can affect rural residents differently.

“If you get a DWI in Essex County, you can lose your job and your livelihood,” she said, which can have a huge impact on a family. “We do not have the same access to public transportation as urban areas do. We do not have as many job opportunities as urban areas do.”

Garcia takes assigned counsel cases and her practice uses a sliding scale fee.

“Even when someone has been unable to pay, we find a way to figure it out,” she said.

Garcia is almost constantly working. The last time she planned a vacation, she got a call minutes before she was about to depart and stayed behind to take the case. ”

My practice is built on trust,” she said. “My clients need to trust me.”

She pointed out that Essex County is the second largest rural county in New York State; however, due to the shortage of practicing attorneys in this area, the assigned counsel program must hire attorneys from as far away as Saratoga County to represent indigent clients. Courts are so spread out it can cost the county more to pay for an attorney’s travel time than for legal services.

Washington County, one of the five counties party to the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit over the state’s underfunding of indigent criminal defense, has received increases to its assigned counsel budget, including funds to hire expert investigators. When the terms of the agreement are up in 2021, Garcia is hopeful that these innovations may go statewide.

One question that plagues Garcia is, who will be coming to replace rural lawyers in this area who are close to retirement? Garcia believes that there needs to be incentive programs for lawyers to come and practice in rural areas of New York, similar to those used to attract doctors.

Technology

Lack of cell service, or a client’s phone being turned off because they ran out of minutes, can make contacting clients difficult. When faced with these hurdles, Garcia will try to connect via Facebook messenger.

“It’s free,” she said. “So if they can use a library or if with a friend whose phone is working, they can check Facebook.”

“The first time a law clerk heard that, she seemed shocked,” she added.

Rural attorneys spend a lot of time in their cars.

“My car is a 2012 Honda Accord, and it has 275,000 miles on it.” Garcia noted

Working while driving is necessary, and cell service is an issue. Garcia knows where the hot spots are – and aren’t – and she can warn a caller, “You have one minute before the call gets dropped.”

Garcia sees universal access to broadband as an imperative in rural areas. However, she does not think technology is a good substitute for meeting clients face-to-face. “You learn a lot more seeing and listening to a client in person,” she said.

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