Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rural South Dakota needs lawyers

Attention young lawyers: rural South Dakota is begging for your services! According to the Argus Leader, 65% of lawyers work in one of four cities across the state. This number is only projected to get worse as rural practices are often composed of older lawyers who will retire soon.

Young lawyers’ unwillingness to work in rural areas is a big problem in a voluminous, open state like South Dakota because it leaves many people long distances from available legal services. To combat the problem, the South Dakota State Bar Association has begun “Project Rural Practice” to target the areas with the biggest need and to recruit and incentivize lawyers to practice in these areas.

While the project is in its beginning stages, this type of action on the part of the State Bar is extremely important. Maybe it’s different in South Dakota, but most aspiring lawyers that I know who have grown up in urban or suburban areas have given no thought to working in a rural area, and awareness of available jobs and of the need for lawyers is critical.

With the economy still in bad shape and students struggling to find jobs after school, there are a lot of good reasons to “look rural.” The ability to control one’s own business at an early age is attractive. There is also a certain sense of satisfaction to be had by realizing that one’s day-to-day job is so meaningful to people who simply wouldn’t have adequate legal services without practicing lawyers in their area.

I would expect interest among young lawyers to grow dramatically if economic incentives are provided and awareness of opportunity is raised. If the South Dakota State Bar is successful in its mission, perhaps other state bars will follow its lead.


princesspeach said...

The article you linked to said that, “A committee will be appointed and work with community groups, county commissioners, retailers and others to identify areas of the state with the greatest need and find incentives to entice lawyers there.” I wonder what sorts of economic incentives they are thinking of, especially if retailers are part of the group.

I think part of the reason why many lawyers do not consider going rural after law school is the rising cost of a legal education. After graduation, many can face $160,000 in debt so the high paying city jobs is def. and attractive option. In addition to these community incentives, I wonder if there is a possibility of a loan assistance program- similar to the one for lawyers working in government.

JT said...

Even if they can incentivize lawyers to relocate to rural areas, would economic compensation be enough to convince lawyers to stay in the long run? The article mentions "A lack of jobs for spouses can pose a problem for many lawyers." Additionally, as a young lawyer with minimal experience, one concern might be the lack of exposure to issues and cases and experience in general. Concerns aside, given the state of the economy, looking to other markets might seem like a good idea.

CET said...

From what I can gather from some unofficial internet sources, the cost of living in South Dakota is one of the lowest in the U.S. It seems like the low cost of living would be a decent incentive for new lawyers to relocate to rural areas. The compensation may not be what someone from an urban area is used to, but in rural South Dakota it could go a long way. As JT points out, however, a young lawyer's lack of experience may be a problem if he or she is going to be the only lawyer in town.

Scarecrow said...

Before coming to law school, I spent four years in Coos Bay, Oregon. My dental hygienist was married to a junior partner at a local law firm. At my last visit, I told her I was going to law school. Her husband called me shortly thereafter, asking if I might consider taking a job with the firm. He said they have tried hiring people straight out of college, but the lack of family connections and the limited job opporutnities for spouses (as JT noted) often means the new hires often don't last.

One solution might be to get people from rural communities to go to law school in hopes they will return home. Of course, judging from the comments during our classes, that might be a pretty big assumption.

I'm still undecided. I liked my time in Coos Bay... but we don't have any family there.

Patricija said...

A Bloomberg Businessweek article, available at, reports that in order to address population loss, Nebraska is considering offering tax breaks and college-loan payments to people who move to rural parts of the state. I think college and law school repayment programs would definitely address Harveen's concern of our (SCARY!) $160,000 law school debt.

KB said...

As Courtney and JT have pointed out, being the only attorney in a small town or rural area may prove to be difficult for someone with relatively little legal experience. Maybe something else that could be added to the incentives of this new program is the promise of a mentor.

This mentor could be in a major city and would be someone to bounce ideas off of. With the promise of someone to turn to when things get confusing or unmanageable, as would be available at a larger law firm in a major city, more young lawyers may feel comfortable setting up shop on their own in rural areas.