Project Rural Practice

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    PRP MissionABA Resolution | Why South Dakota? | Contact PRP | Rural Attorney Recruitment Program

    The Unified Judicial System and the State Bar of South Dakota are committed to assuring that all citizens within the State of South Dakota have access to quality attorneys. In 2013, the South Dakota Legislature approved the Recruitment Assistance Pilot Program to address the current and projected shortage of lawyers practicing in small communities and rural areas of South Dakota. 

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    AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION

    STATE BAR OF SOUTH DAKOTA

    REPORT TO THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES

    RESOLUTION

    RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, state, territorial, tribal and local governments to support efforts to address the decline in the number of lawyers practicing in rural areas and to address access to justice issues for residents in rural America.

    FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages state and territorial bar associations to develop programs to increase the number of lawyers practicing in rural areas and which address access to justice issues for residents in rural America.

     

    REPORT

    The main street attorney in rural America is an endangered species.  The small number of rural lawyers in relation to the unmet need for legal services in rural areas is shocking.  The impact of losing rural lawyers on the economic viability of rural communities and the delivery of justice to residents in these areas is potentially devastating.

    In South Dakota, 65% of the attorneys are located in only four cities.  The results of the 2010 census reveal a continuation of the trend where rural areas lose population to urban areas.  As Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, David Gilbertson, warned in his State of the Judiciary message, “We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services. Large populated areas are becoming islands of justice in a rural sea of justice denied.”

    The demographics of the legal profession and urban migration in South Dakota reflect the wider trend seen across the country.  In small, rural communities the aging of the profession is pronounced with the average age of lawyers serving those communities climbing.  The troubling aspect of the demographic data for small communities in rural areas is more apparent when combined with the national trend among young lawyers who prefer an urban based practice in significant numbers. [1]

    Assuring that main streets in rural America include a law practice is not an isolated Bar issue.  It is not limited to access to justice.  It is linked to the very survival of many key elements that define the distinctive quality of life in all of rural America.  The decline of main street lawyers is directly connected to the health of the local economy, impacts shrinking governmental budgets, and is  key to effective advocacy to ward off discussions about courthouse closings and county consolidation.  Fred Cozad, a mentor to so many lawyers but the only lawyer in Martin, SD, is the epitome of a country lawyer who has thrived in a rural community.  Yet, his practice of 64 years spanning 8 decades, the loyal clients he has served and the town of Martin are at risk because he does not have a successor.  Because of these threats, this issue is not just a lawyer problem, it is a community problem.

    In response to these challenges, the State Bar of South Dakota has taken a leadership role in addressing the rural attorney’s status as an endangered species through formation of Project Rural Practice (“PRP”).  PRP was charged with the tasks of identifying the scope of the decline of main street lawyers in rural South Dakota, assessing its impact and developing recommendations.

    PRP is a collaborative effort involving multiple organizations.  They include:  the South Dakota Indian Country Bar Association, County Commissioners Association, School District Association, the Municipal League, the Governor’s office, legislative leaders, Retailers Association, Banker’s Association, Chamber of Commerce, state and local Economic Development agencies, the States Attorneys Association, the Unified Judicial System, USD School of Law, service veteran representatives, USDA Rural Development Agency, state universities, South Dakota Community Foundation, and others.  The diversity of participation allows each stakeholder to spotlight their interest in this issue, seek common ground and identify enlightened solutions.

    The work of PRP is performed by a Task Force appointed by past President Patrick Goetzinger in the Fall of 2011.  The Task Force is co-chaired by Past Presidents Goetzinger and Bob Morris.  It is comprised of representatives of the several groups referenced above, all working together in a multi-disciplinary approach to incubate solutions to the challenge.

    The PRP Task Force has led the process of identifying ways to recruit lawyers to Main street in rural areas.  Several objectives have evolved, which can be categorized into three areas.

    First, the Bar must educate lawyers about practice support resources available to attorneys in rural areas and effectively demonstrate that the rural attorney will have all the advantages and support available to an urban, big firm attorney.  Technology, on-line resources, IT support services, Bar mentorship programs and ABA law office management and practice support resources are bundled and made available to break down the barriers young lawyers or new lawyers in rural areas encounter in setting up and supporting a rural practice.  PRP will examine programs from other states that accomplish giving rural bound attorneys practice ready skills.  These programs include solo & small firm boot camps modeled after successful Trial Academy programs, internships, externships and Massachusetts’s idea of establishing a legal residency program that mimics the medical profession’s residency model.  The rural attorney will have available to them training, mentoring, resources and professional support that rivals the urban, big firm experience.

    Second, rural communities will be encouraged to develop incentives and to make the case for recruiting a lawyer to their main street.  Rural towns do amazing things when local leaders lead.   They must combat the myth of social isolation and address the need for a companion occupation for the lawyer’s spouse or significant other.  State and local economic development agencies are motivated to engage in creative planning to make the case for locating a practice in a rural community and demonstrate the area can support a thriving practice.

    The tactics and programs used by state and local leaders to recruit medical professionals to rural areas can be applied with the same vigor to attract legal professionals to rural areas.   State leaders have been engaged in a discussion of what can be done legislatively and through policy innovations to support rural communities wanting to recruit attorneys and address student loan debt for lawyers committing to a rural community.  To supplement these efforts, the option of adding to the Law School curriculum and admissions policy will further support motivating students to seek a rural practice vocation.  PRP provides information to influence state and community attitudes and develop a template for making available legal services in a virtual law office setting or recruiting lawyers to Main Street in rural America.  As Elsie Meeks, SD State Director of the USDA Rural Development Program eloquently observed, PRP is a significant part of the universal objective to keep rural areas not just viable, but thriving.

    Third, lawyers seeking a rural opportunity and communities wanting a Main street lawyer need to be connected.  PRP is developing a website for South Dakota communities and lawyers to match the interested lawyer with the interested community or local lawyer seeking a successor.  The website will host practice support and community information referenced above.  In addition to being a valuable resource with relevant information, the website has been described as a match.com for lawyers and communities.   In addition, PRP is at the center of coordinating the task of bringing attention to this issue by tying into the communication network of our non-lawyer stakeholders, such as social media, blogs, list-serves, board meetings, newsletters, columns, conventions and conferences.

    The work of the State Bar of South Dakota can provide a template for use by other Bar organizations.  ABA House of Delegates action to support the Resolution brings attention to this issue and the different methods of addressing the issue.  Supporting the Resolution enhances the legal profession’s role as the leader of a multi-disciplinary approach to addressing issues important to rural America.  By bringing attention to the need for access to justice in rural areas and actively examining the rural lawyer’s status as an endangered species, the Resolution is intended to dispel the myths of a rural practice and inspire law students to pursue a career as a country lawyer.    Your support of the Resolution vaults Project Rural Practice to the status of ABA policy that recognizes effective access to justice includes a multi-disciplinary approach to recruiting lawyers to rural communities in order to assure rural America remains not just viable, but thriving.

    Thomas J. Nicholson, Current President, State Bar of South Dakota

    Respectfully submitted,

    Thomas Nicholson, President

    State Bar of South Dakota

    August 2012


    [1] During the preparation of this Report, the authors conducted an informal survey of a small but diverse cross-section of states. The results of the survey confirmed the trends identified in this paragraph are occurring in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Texas. The State Bars of Iowa and Nebraska are working on similar programs.


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