By: RJ Vogt
Amanda Kool remembers listening to her law school peers describe their “average middle class” backgrounds during icebreaker sessions at the beginning of her first year.
“My mom lived in the trailer park and my dad did transient farm work and other side businesses,” said Kool, who grew up in rural Kentucky. “I was like, wait, was that not middle class?”
The moment was just one of the many times Kool has noticed the rural-urban divide that permeates the legal community.
She knows the chasm well, having grown up and gone to college in Kentucky before attending law school at Northeastern University, working in the corporate sector at Nixon Peabody LLP and spending five years running the Community Enterprise Project, a clinical program at Harvard Law School.
While at Harvard, she helped shift the clinic’s focus from primarily serving tech startups to serving more small, local community enterprises that needed help with business, finance and other transactional legal matters.
The post also gave her the opportunity and the platform to research more about the access to justice gap that the rural-urban divide can exacerbate in places like her home state.
The research and the project combined to convince Kool to give up her “dream job” and go back to Kentucky, where she could have a greater impact.
Now, she and her family have traded city life for a house and a yard in Bracken County, population 8,000, big-box retailers 0. As director of legal operations at the Lexington-based Commonwealth Commercialization Center, she’s applying her experiences in Boston to a statewide $1.2 million-plus project that aims to use Kentucky law schools to pair high quality legal services with local businesses.
She’s also helped start the Alliance for Lawyers and Rural America, an initiative geared toward facilitating conversations, ideas, information and resources at the intersection of law and rurality.
Law360 caught up with Kool at the Equal Justice Conference in May, hosted in Louisville by the American Bar Association and National Legal Aid and Defenders Association. She described how moving to rural America can be a key step in providing access to legal services where it’s needed most.
You’ve said your new project in Kentucky stems from some of the work you did at Harvard’s Community Enterprise Project. What’s the connection?
Back in the mid-’90s, Harvard Law School had put together a program called the Community Enterprise Project to help people start small businesses and nonprofit organizations.
It was located out in the community at the Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain, but in the late 2000s they brought it back to campus — in Harvard Square essentially. When I came on board in 2012, the Community Enterprise Project was rebranded as the Transactional Law Clinic. Instead of mom-and-pop businesses, low-income people, communities of color, immigrants … it was more high-tech startup types.
That work was really relevant to our students, who were going on to work at large firms in New York. But there was this entire other set of needs and people that wasn’t being served because we were no longer in those communities — and they were not getting onto train lines to come to us at campus.
I started to find these students who were social justice-minded and transactionally-minded. I started exploring more about worker cooperatives and community land trusts. We started going back to the community again: one day a week, and then it was two, and over time we built this program with a waiting list and a reputation.
What’s an example of one of the community projects that grew out of the law clinic?
The first one came along kind of organically: we called it the Food Truck Project. It was right after the city of Boston had permitted food trucks for the first time and said, you know, “we’d like to have more of these.” The city worked with Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and came up with a permitting regime.
And our clinic just naturally started seeing people saying, “I’m going to start a food truck, will you help me form an entity? Will you help me register my trademark?”
I said, well, these people have all of these other needs, too. They need to maybe finance the truck. They need to get the truck inspected. They need to have a relationship with the commissary kitchen.
What if we connected with all of those people and put together a toolkit and a training program that was like Food Trucks 101, with all the legal stuff you need to know in one place?
What made you think about going back to Kentucky?
There were certain hurdles. It’s really hard for me to help grow my clients’ business when someone just bought their building and wants to triple their rent, right? And because I come from here [Kentucky], I’m always thinking about what’s happening in other places — here, people are seeing things like falling property values as a bad thing. Where I was sitting, I saw it as an opportunity.
Secondly, I was working in a place where transactional legal services were available, basically, across the spectrum: there were clinics like mine, law firms getting involved, incubators … and I was looking at my home state of Kentucky and saying, “we have one pro bono transactional services provider in the entire state?”
And then, being at a law school, I had connected with a number of students at Harvard Law School, especially in the wake of the election, who were very catalyzed by the justice gap and access to justice. When you don’t have access to a system that works for you, you kind of pull away from that system and you no longer even see yourself as a part of it.
There was only so long I could sit in a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and say “people should go practice in rural places” before it was time for me to do it.
How is it different, doing what you do at the CCC in Kentucky as compared to what you did at Harvard, in Boston?
In the city, entrepreneurship is not necessarily economic development. Whereas in Kentucky, those things are much more closely aligned, which is why I’m attracted to it.
And when we talked about doing that as a state, it took me a matter of two to three months to be talking in person with the Kentucky Bar Association, with the people at law firms doing this work, with the heads of the three law schools, etc.
Within the first four months in my job, we were all sitting at the same table talking about how we work together as a state. There were three law schools talking about how they develop programming that all of their law students can enroll in and participate in together.
You can’t pull that off in other markets.
What would you say to other people who might consider working on access to justice in a rural area?
If you are a creative, innovative or proactive thinker, rural communities are for you. There’s so much room for really creative, exciting stuff to happen. You can’t invest in the city is as well as you can in rural places.
I loved Boston. I loved Harvard Law School — wouldn’t change a thing. But I’m so glad to be here. I’m not going anywhere.