Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rural America's lawyer shortage

That issue was on the front page of the New York Times today, where Ethan Bronner's story featured this quote from the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, David Gilbertson:
A hospital will not last long with no doctors, and a courthouse and judicial system with no lawyers faces the same grim future. We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services.
Not a bad analogy if you ask me, though Prof. David Wilkins who directs a project on the legal profession at Harvard Law School, offered this observation for Bronner's story:
The health care model is unbelievably subsidized, and while I favor finding some version of it for legal needs, it is never going to be ratcheted up to that level. ... We should think more about public-private partnerships and loosening up some of the restrictions on law practice without junking them all. What we need now is experimentation, like what is happening in South Dakota.
South Dakota's experimentation is manifest in a new law passed last month which will pay lawyers a subsidy of $12,000/year to live and work in rural areas.  In passing the law, South Dakota became the first state to heed the 2012 call of the American Bar Association to "stem the decline of lawyers in rural areas."

But Wilkins is right that the South Dakota program, called Project Rural Practice, is not nearly as generous as the 40-year-old national program that seeks to put health care professionals in underserved areas.  The National Health Service Corps offers medical, dental and mental health professionals up to $60,000 in tax-free loan repayment for two years of service or up to $140,000 for five years.  Half of those who take advantage of that program serve in rural places.

The story features lots of data indicative of the shortage of rural lawyers nationally:  Small firms (with fewer than 50 lawyers) are concentrated in urban and suburban areas; only 2 percent are in "rural regions," however that term is defined.  Perhaps more telling are these stats:
  • 65% of South Dakota's lawyers live in the state's four urban areas.
  • 70% of Georgia lawyers are in the Atlanta area
  • 94% of Arizona's lawyers are the Maricopa and Pima counties
  • 83% of Texas lawyers are in around Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio 
Contrary to the suggestion of one of the headlines for this story--"Rural States Need Country Lawyers, and One is Set to Pay" (continuation page of the print edition), this is not a problem facing only "rural states."  This is a problem facing rural areas within all states.

But Bronner's story is focused on a "rural state":  48.2% of South Dakota's population live in rural places, following the Census Bureau definition of less than 2500.  And he certainly sets the story in a rural place within that state:  Martin, South Dakota, population 1,071.  Martin is the county seat of Bennett County, with a population of just 3,436.  I can't help note some other interesting demographic information about the county, which Bronner does not mention:  a 35.5% poverty rate, a population that is 60.2% American Indian, a high school graduation rate of 80% and a college graduation rate of 15%.  The mean travel time to work in Bennett County is nearly 18 minutes.

Fredric Cozad, Martin's only lawyer, is the face of Bronner's story.  Cozard, who is retiring at the age of 86, says he "never imagined that younger lawyers would not follow him."

Bronner quotes several local officials regarding the need for lawyers.  Martin's mayor, Gayle Krocer, says:  
We need lawyers.  Our state attorney drives down from Rapid City. It’s crazy. We haven’t had a full-time city attorney in years. For any legal issue, we have to look out of town.
Bronner also mentions Carla Sue Denis, a drug-rehabilitation counselor in Martin, where "addiction is a raging problem," who said that people who want a divorce or have other legal needs sometimes come to her because she can do the research online and download relevant forms.

His quotes of Bennett County Commissioner Rolf Kraft reveal a whole other angle on this story--the burden that the lack of lawyers places on local government coffers.  That is, counties like Bennett can't qualify to get one of the 16 lawyers authorized by the state pilot program unless they pony up half the cost.  And that is no small burden on these counties.  

Bronner provides this related vignette of "court day" in Bennett County:  
The lunch place at the Martin Livestock Auction, where 1,000 head of cattle had been sold the previous day, included a table of lawyers, the ones in suits, ties and no hats. All had driven more than two hours from Rapid City and Pierre, paid by Bennett County, which also pays to transport prisoners 100 miles away because it has no functioning jail.
Bronner notes that neighboring states, like Iowa, are watching what South Dakota is doing. Here's a post from last year about a new Iowa scheme to attract lawyers to rural places.   

One thought:  If we care about access to justice for rural populations--which I cynically think is a big "if"--we need to value state law schools like the University of South Dakota.  Yes, it and many schools like it are decidedly non-elite, as measured by status symbols like U.S. News and World Report rankings.  But these schools, with relatively low tuition, are far more likely to educate lawyers who will seriously consider devoting their careers to rural backwaters like Bennett County.  They are also where people who grew up in rural areas are more likely to get their legal educations.  And, as a spokesman for the National Health Service Corps said, research shows "that residents who train in rural settings are two to three times more likely than urban graduates to practice in rural areas."  I suspect the same is true of lawyers.

An earlier post about the shortage of lawyers in rural South Dakota is here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

lol, lawyers cant find work and there is a "shortage" lol.............fml........