Comments of Patrick G. Goetzinger:
The main street attorney in rural South Dakota is an endangered species. In his 2011 State of the Judiciary address, South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David E. Gilbertson drew attention to the decline of attorneys practicing in rural communities. The dearth of small town attorneys in relation to the need for legal services in rural South Dakota is shocking. The impact of losing rural lawyers on the economic viability and social fabric of rural communities and the delivery of justice to these areas is potentially devastating to the State of South Dakota and to a way of life that built this state. Action to preserve the rural legal practitioner—the counsel and confidant of small town South Dakota—is necessary.
Looking at the numbers more closely reveals a startling reality. Our Bar has 1861 active in-state members.
• 35% are from Sioux Falls
• 16% are from Rapid City
• 10% are from Pierre
• 4% are from Aberdeen
Sixty-five percent of our members are located in four cities. The results of the 2010 census reveal a continuation of the trend where rural areas lose population to metropolitan areas. As Chief Justice Gilbertson warned, “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.”
Assuring that main streets in rural SD include a law practice is not just an isolated Bar issue. It is not limited to delivering legal services or assuring justice in rural SD. It is linked to the very survival of many key elements that define the distinctive quality of life in all of SD. The decline of main street lawyers is directly connected to the health of the local economy, impacts shrinking budgets, and is a key to effective advocacy to ward off discussions about courthouse closings and county consolidation. Because of these threats, the borders of this issue are not confined to the Bar. It involves the entire community and multiple stakeholder organizations.
In response to these challenges, I have asked the Bar to take a leadership role in addressing the rural attorney’s status as an endangered species through formation of Project Rural Practice (“PRP”). PRP will be charged with the task of identifying the scope of the decline of main street lawyers in rural South Dakota, assess its impact and develop recommendations.
PRP will be a collaborative effort involving multiple organizations. Those invited include the Associations of the SD Indian Country Bar, County Commissioners, School Districts, SD Retailers & the States Attorneys as well as the UJS, Law School, local charitable organizations and others. The diversity of participation reflects the fact this is a community problem, not just a lawyer problem. PRP will bring these stakeholders together, spotlight their respective interests in this issue and identify enlightened solutions.
The role of the Bar will be to provide leadership and promote the benefits associated with a main street rural practice. Education about the extent and nature of the decline and the virtues of preserving a rural practice will be one focus of the Bar’s effort. PRP will incubate solutions through a multi- disciplinary approach. I can’t think of a better way for the Bar to give back.
I have asked Past President Bob Morris to Chair the Project Rural Practice Task Force. I will also appoint a diverse group of rural practice attorneys and have been in contact with representatives of the organizations who have a stake in this project. President Morris was a natural choice for the Chair of PRP given the ongoing success of the Hagemann- Morris Young Lawyer Mentorship Coin Program. Mentoring will be a critical part of removing main street lawyers from the endangered species list.
Many iconic members of the Bar had very successful rural, main street practices. Lem Overpeck, MQ Sharpe, George Johnson and Sam Masten are just a few of the names that illustrate the stature that can be achieved from a rural practice. The importance of the small town lawyer is illustrated by the story told by Quentin Riggins about his grandmother, Zola Riggins, who lived near Porcupine. Grandma Zola had a huge chalkboard by her phone with the names and numbers of her important contacts. Among dozens of names on the chalkboard, at the top was Grandma Zola’s lawyer and his number was listed there for years. That lawyer was Fred Cozad of Martin.
It is important not to confuse recognition of the good old days with being stuck in the past. It is a new time with new challenges and new opportunities to attract today’s lawyers to a rural community. The Bar can lead in the reinvention of the main street practice to fit 2012 realities. From Law School classrooms to County Commissioners & School Board meeting rooms, solutions will present themselves to motivate law students and lawyers to seriously consider moving to a rural area and become an active part of the community. Recalling the image of a vast sea of justice denied, it has been stated a smooth sea never made a skilled mariner. The Bar is ready to set sail in this tossing sea of challenge through the skill of those assembled in Project Rural Practice. May PRP have fair winds and following seas.