Small law practices in rural counties are becoming extinct with just 2 percent operating in rural areas where nearly a fifth of the country lives.
The shortage of lawyers in rural South Dakota was a big enough problem that the American Bar Association asked federal, state and local governments to do something to entice lawyers to work in rural areas.
South Dakota First in Line
Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) signed the Rural Attorney Recruitment bill into law March 21, setting up a pilot program that will give graduating lawyers an annual subsidy to live and work outside of the state’s biggest cities as long as they make a five-year commitment. It’s being compared to similar programs that attract doctors, nurses and dentists to certain areas.
“This will help fill a very big void in these counties,” said Bob Wilcox, executive director, South Dakota Association of County Commissioners.
Currently, 65 percent of South Dakota attorneys are located in Minnehaha, Pennington, Hughes, and Brown counties. The law, which is the first of its kind in the nation, establishes a pilot program that has the participation of 16 lawyers.
The qualifying attorneys of the University of South Dakota School of Law will receive an annual subsidy of $12,000 a year if they are willing to practice in rural counties. The rural counties will pay 35 percent ($4,200) of the incentive payment, the State Bar of South Dakota pays 15 percent ($1,800) and the state will pick up the remainder ($6,000). If an attorney breaks this contract, they have to repay the subsidy in full or face action by the state bar. The program begins in June.
The Long, Winding Road
In 2001, David Gilbertson became chief justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court. Shortly after settling in to the job, he decided to visit all 66 counties in the state to get a feel of how the judicial system was doing. As he went through 22 rural counties, he noticed a lot of the attorneys retiring or dying with no one left to replace them.
In his 2006 chief judiciary address, he mentioned the growing problem of rural attorneys disappearing and how residents and counties had to reach out hundreds of miles for legal help. It wasn’t until seven years later that the state Senate heard his call for action.
“Educating everyone in terms of the growing problem was the main reason it took so long,” Gilbertson said. “The good news is that it has become law and will start to help rural counties bridge the gap.”
Legal deserts are not just confined to South Dakota.
In Georgia, the situation is worse. Nearly 70 percent of the state’s lawyers practice in the metropolitan Atlanta area, while 67 percent of poor Georgians live outside the metro area, according to AJC.com.
In Arizona, 94 percent of the state’s lawyers are in two of the largest counties — Maricopa and Pima, home of Phoenix and Tuscon. Most of the young lawyers would start out in a rural county to gain their footing then leave. Texas has seen 83 percent of its attorneys work in the Houston, Dallas, Austin or San Antonio metropolitan areas.
Last year, the Iowa State Bar Association began encouraging law students to spend summers in rural areas in the hope they might put down roots. They have been watching the South Dakota program as a model that might be replicated.
“Anyone in a rural county is seeing this problem,” said Linda Langston, Linn County, Iowa supervisor and NACo first vice president. “The best thing we can do is come up with a solution before it gets much worse.”