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Project Rural Practice

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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.

Read the New York Times Article

Rural Attorney Recruitment Program

Patrick G. Goetzinger

Patrick G. Goetzinger
State Bar President, 2011-2012

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.

Bob Morris

Bob Morris
State Bar President

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.





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.


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 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

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.

Why South Dakota? A Snapshot

JULY 15, 2012
This state has many great qualities requiring volumes to adequately describe.  But if you are just beginning your search for work, and you know little about South Dakota, you are not interested in textbooks.  Hence this snapshot of our fair state.  If you are considering a rural practice, South Dakota is a hard place to beat.  Not only does the state have a rich tradition of rural practice, it provides some of the best natural beauty, plenty of venues for outdoor sports (and four true seasons to do them in), and the strong economy to sustain that practice.  Below, these topics and others are described, giving you a taste of South Dakota’s past, present and future.

Information derived from Herbert T. Hoover & John E. Miller et al., A New South Dakota History, (Harry F. Thompson, ed. 2005); Edward Patrick Hogan & Erin Hogan Fouberg, The Geography of South Dakota (3d ed. 2001).

South Dakota’s culture is arguably reflected most vividly in its geography.  Even today, the most stark political and cultural cleavage is the “East River – West River” dynamic, which gets its name from the Missouri River that splits the state in two.  The eastern third of the state was covered by glaciers during the last ice age.  As the glaciers receded, the land was flattened and small depressions carved.  The result is a region of pothole lakes teeming with fish and gently sloping hills ideal for agriculture.  The remaining two-thirds of the state, with the exception of the Black Hills, is comprised of plateaus or tablelands in the north and south and more rounded, picturesque hills in the middle.  This area is traditionally viewed as “Western” geography, with less of a presence of agriculture and more ranches.  The southern portion is more arid than the north and is home to the Sandhills (which are predominantly in Nebraska) and the Badlands – some of the most beautiful geography in the country.  The Black Hills contain some of the most ancient mountains in the world, replete with conifers, incredibly unique geology, and the tallest mountains in North America east of the Rocky Mountains.

As you can surmise by its location in the middle of the country, South Dakota has a very continental climate.  Essentially three types of climate zones influence the state, with a dry continental climate impacting roughly the western half of the state, and two types of “humid continental” climate impacting the east (the type that has more moisture and warmer temperatures impacts roughly the southeastern third of East River South Dakota).  All three climate zones do share certain characteristics, particularly temperature.  Summers are hot and winters are cold in South Dakota.  However, summers are not as consistently muggy as they are in the Southeastern United States.  Precipitation tends to increase as you move further east and south throughout the state.  The Black Hills provides a unique climate anomaly for its communities, helping moderate temperatures and increase precipitation relative to the dry continental climate elsewhere in West River South Dakota.


– Native American Based upon the 2010 census, South Dakota had a little over 800,000 residents, nearly 72,000 of whom are Native Americans.  While the Native American population comprises a little less than 10% of the state’s total population, the community constitutes the state’s largest minority group and has a historical impact that shaped South Dakota in many fundamental ways.   The tribes that currently exist as sovereign, recognized entities in South Dakota are constituencies of the Sioux Federation.  The Sioux Tribes began entering South Dakota from their ancestral homeland around Mille Lacs, in eastern Minnesota, in the last half of the eighteenth century.

The Sioux Federation is  divided by ethnologists based upon language—specifically, three Sioux dialects that loosely correspond to geography.  The eastern Sioux dialect, Dakota, includes four tribes:  Mdewakanton, Hahpekute, Sisseton, and Wahpeton.  These tribes inhabited the northeastern portion of the state around 1800.  Currently, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate has tribal authority over the Lake Traverse reservation in northeast South Dakota, while a melting pot of Dakota peoples—mostly Mdewakantons and Hahpekutes—reside on the lands of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in eastern South Dakota.  The middle Sioux dialect, Nakota, is used by three tribes:  Yankton, Yanktonai, and Assiniboine.  The Yankton and Yanktonai inhabited northern and eastern South Dakota around 1800.  Today, the Yankton Sioux Tribe may be found on a reservation in south central South Dakota.  The western dialect, Lakota, classifies seven tribes:  Oglala, Brule, Minneconjou, Sans Arc, Two Kettle, Blackfoot, and Hunkpapa.  These tribes inhabited the western portion of the state at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Reservations inhabited primarily by Lakota peoples include the Lower Brule and Rosebud Indian Reservations (Brule) in south central South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (Oglala) in southwestern South Dakota, and the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation (Minneconjou, Sans Arc, Two Kettle, and Blackfoot) in west central South Dakota.
Arguably the state’s greatest challenge will be to partner with these tribes to remedy the dire humanitarian situation on the reservations.  Four of the five poorest counties in the United States are reservation counties in South Dakota.  While new federal legislation, state and tribal partnerships, and reservation-based economic development are beginning to show some signs of progress, there is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to improve the lives of tribal members living on the reservations and provide them the opportunity to share in the prosperity of the rest of the state.
– South Dakota Generally Caucasians of German extraction constitute the largest ethnic population in the state, followed by Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians, Czechs, Poles, English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh.   These cultures created a newly-fashioned culture in this state that was, and continues to be, focused upon agrarian issues, political conservatism, and—to a lesser degree—populism. In his landmark work on political culture, the late Daniel J. Elazar identified three political subcultures in American politics and the characteristics of each, two of which are helpful in describing South Dakota culture.  They are the individualistic political culture, characterized by strong beliefs in the marketplace as a solution to economic and social ills, that government’s role should be limited, and that self-interest governs politics;  and the moralistic culture, which is described as maintaining strong beliefs in a commonwealth approach to solving social problems, that politics is driven by issues, and that government is a positive force in the lives of citizens and advances the public interest.  The culture of West River South Dakota most strongly mirrors the individualistic political culture, while East River South Dakota seems to embody the moralistic political culture.

This melding of political cultures is evident in the dueling state traditions of political conservatism and populism.  Conservatives and liberals of either individualistic or moralistic traditions inhabit the state, and the political movements they spawn have had great impacts on the national stage.  The earliest political force in the state was Populism, a movement political culture arising around statehood that introduced the initiative and referendum, instruments of direct democracy.  South Dakota was the first state to adopt this practice statewide, in 1898.  Populists sought to combat the evils of monopoly power, whether embodied in capitalist excess or government corruption and control.  By the early 1900s, this movement matured (or was co-opted, depending upon the source) into the Progressive Movement.  This movement had many flavors, with elements of strong moralist conviction that promoted temperance and moral legislation, and more “progressive” elements with  impulses for investing in infrastructure, improving government, and improving the situation of farmers.  The main political battles occurred between Progressive Republicans and Conservative (“Stalwart”) Republicans, with Democrats providing only a “secondary factor,” a dynamic that still exists today in state government.  A coalition of main street lawyers, business people, educators, and farmers made the progressives a strong political force until the mid-1920s.  Thereafter, traditional, conservative Republicans occupied state government.  Only five Democratic governors have served the State of South Dakota, and none since the late 1970s.  Instead, the state’s electorate often votes for conservatives to run state government, where fiscal responsibility is viewed as the priority, while permitting Democrats outsized success in Congressional races because of a recognition of the benefits of federal assistance for state projects.  Even the lion of South Dakota conservatives, the anti-communist crusader Karl E. Mundt, fought hard to strengthen federal farm subsidies, brought the VA Hospital to Sioux Falls, and brought the EROS Data Center (a satellite geographic imaging center) to South Dakota in his 34 years in Congress.
Ultimately, the political and cultural foundation of South Dakota is not monolithic.  It is much more complicated than any snapshot can convey.  Various influences have impacted the state in a way that simple associations alone do not adequately represent.  The common threads from of South Dakota’s geography and history will likely form the cultural tapestry of South Dakota for the foreseeable future, including strands of Native American heritage, a rugged pioneer culture centered around agriculture, a jaundiced view of concentrated power, and a sense of statewide community that can only exist in a low-population state.

South Dakota’s economy is synonymous with low unemployment and agriculture.   The former is statistically true, and agriculture and ranching certainly have the greatest influence of any sector of the economy on the culture of South Dakota as well as its politics.  However, other important industries and services drive most of the economic engine of the state.  Harkening to its ranching and agricultural focus, the state’s largest industrial employer is meat packing.  Much of the state’s industrial research is in agronomy and animal sciences, although important research institutions, such as the EROS Data Center, the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake in the Black Hills, and others are beginning to diversify South Dakota’s high technology capacity.  Dairy producers and processors, soybean processing, ethanol plants and farm machinery production are also major employers.   Rounding out the major employers are export-scale metal fabrication, chemical processing and polymer industries, which are present to some degree in  many South Dakota communities.
The state’s wide open spaces and substantial wind resources have over the last decade fostered the growth of wind energy as an important industry in the state, with wind farms and turbine manufacturing companies setting up shop.  Tourism constitutes a sizeable chunk of the state’s economy, as is evident during any summer day in the Black Hills or on the Missouri River, or anywhere in the state during the fall and winter hunting seasons.  With the state’s aging population, health care services are experiencing a large increase in demand in communities of all sizes in the state.  This is a trend that will likely continue for the foreseeable future.  Finally, financial services industry in South Dakota is noteworthy because of its size and because of the impact it has had on the growth of Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest community.

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You can contact someone from the Project Rural Practice Committee by emailing

Get more information and contact the Rural Lawyer Recruitment Program on the UJS Website.

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