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In rural America, there are job opportunities and a need for lawyers

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Couple outstanding in their field

Mary DePuydt and Cody Cooper are married and plan to open separate law offices in Wishek, North Dakota, as well as grow their own food. Photo by Greg Latza.

Wishek, North Dakota, is 90 minutes southeast of Bismarck and roughly six hours from either Minneapolis-Saint Paul or Winnipeg, Manitoba. Settled by ethnic Germans fleeing Russia, it’s a farm community on the opposite end of the state from North Dakota’s oil boom. As a result, Wishek hasn’t seen the influx of people and money causing problems for its northern neighbors. Though it’s the biggest city in McIntosh County, it’s still pretty small—the 2010 census counted 1,002 people.

But that might change, says Duke Rosendahl, economic development coordinator of Wishek's Job Development Authority. Oil companies were exploring drilling in McIntosh County this past spring.

"If they find what they think they're going to, within five or six years, people are going to need attorneys who are versed in land laws and how they can protect themselves with getting into oil leases," Rosendahl says. "Not to mention general civil attorney needs."

That's a problem because Wishek's only lawyer retired last year. That left residents without anyone nearby to handle their basic legal needs. "It's always a challenge to get professionals into a rural area," Rosendahl says. "Particularly with the perception that we're not far from the North Pole."

And Rosendahl doesn't think Wishek residents should have to drive all the way to Bismarck for legal help when there is so much work for a local attorney.

"It'd be nice to be able to grab a guy's collar, if you will," he says. "Be close enough to get nose to nose with these people and get a relationship going."

So Wishek took the unusual step of offering to pay for office space and other business expenses if a young lawyer agreed to move to town. The city got two: Cody Cooper and Mary DePuydt, a married couple who both finished law school in 2013 and moved to Wishek from the Twin Cities in April. They planned to set up separate law offices to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

The two were interested in Wishek because they want to try growing and making much of their own food. They also liked the idea of living in a small community because it provides more opportunities to take on leadership roles. Cooper hopes to eventually run for McIntosh County state's attorney. "That's also a thing that attracted us to Wishek—the possibility that we're going to be able to do good out there," Cooper says. "In a big town like Minneapolis, you feel like there's not so much to do to really make an impact."

Duke Rosendahl with a license plate that reads

Duke Rosendahl, Wishek's economic development coordinator, says, "It's always a challenge to get professionals into a rural area." Photo by Greg Latza.


Wishek isn't the only rural place looking to attract new attorneys. Nearly 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but the New York Times says just 2 percent of small law practices are in those areas. Those still practicing law in small towns are often nearing retirement age, without anyone to take over their practices.

And without an attorney nearby, rural residents may have to drive 100 miles or more to take care of routine matters like child custody, estate planning and taxes. For people of limited means, a long drive is a logistical hardship, requiring gas, a day away from work and sometimes an overnight stay. And census information shows that rural communities are disproportionately poor.

All this creates a "justice gap," with legal needs going unmet because potential clients can't find a lawyer, or they can't afford the lawyers they can find.

"It increases the expense," says Judge Gail Hagerty of the North Dakota Supreme Court, a leader in her state's effort to address the issue. "In some cases, people just don't get the legal services they need."

Pat Goetzinger, the 2011-2012 president of the State Bar of South Dakota, adds that "the strain on local budgets as a result of not having local lawyers is astronomical." That's because local governments have to pay judges, prosecutors and private defenders to drive in and handle local cases. Goetzinger's native Bennett County was forced to do this after its only attorney retired, leaving the closest lawyer more than 120 miles away.

Pat Goetzinger sits on a rock in the wilderness of South Dakota

Pat Goetzinger, president of the South Dakota bar, notes that "the strain on local budgets as a result of not having local lawyers is astronomical." Photo by Greg Latza.

Recognizing these issues, the ABA's House of Delegates passed a 2012 resolution encouraging governments and bar groups to address the loss of lawyers in rural areas and access-to-justice issues in rural America.

Bar leaders, law schools and governments are increasingly taking up the challenge. Particularly in the Midwest and Upper Midwest, programs have sprung up in recent years to encourage law students to start their careers in rural America via clerkships, job opportunities or help setting up new offices.

The problem is not a lack of new attorneys. Law school graduating classes have increased in size over the past 30 years, according to data from the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. And those new lawyers are having trouble finding meaningful work. The section found this year that only 57 percent of 2013 law graduates had full-time, nontemporary jobs requiring bar passage. Another 10.1 percent had full-time "law degree preferred" jobs. The remaining graduates, roughly a third, were unemployed or had part-time, temporary or nonlegal work.

At the same time, the legal needs of low- or moderate-income Americans are going unmet because the demand is so much greater than the supply of help. The Legal Services Corp. says one legal aid attorney is available for every 6,415 low-income Americans, which means that as many as four out of five of those people's civil legal problems are not addressed.

The ABA's immediate-past president, James Silkenat, put this paradox front and center with his Legal Access Job Corps initiative, which seeks to connect underemployed young lawyers with underserved low- to moderate-income clients. He described it as his biggest priority during his year in office.

"I devoted the largest part of my budget to pursuing this, and it really addresses two issues: not only the unmet legal needs, which are enormous around the country, but the underemployed young lawyers looking for training," he says. It's "matching up those two problems in the same bucket rather than treating them as two separate problems."

That was part of why Bruce Cameron, a solo practitioner in Rochester, Minnesota, wrote Becoming a Rural Lawyer. Released in 2013, the book discusses the pros and cons of rural practice and gives practical advice on setting up an office. Cameron came to the law as a second career and found himself less frightened by the prospect of starting his own firm than trying to find an associate job in a competitive market.

"There seemed to be a concentration on one standard career path—practice for a law firm in a metropolitan area," he says. "It seemed to me that there were a lot of small towns out there wanting or needing attorneys. And in 2008, there were a lot of attorneys wanting or needing places to practice."

"[I was] trying to help encourage the idea that there are two needs out there, and perhaps one could help fulfill the other."


New attorneys don't often choose rural law practice after graduation. That mirrors a general trend toward Americans concentrating in cities. In Wishek's McIntosh County, for example, the population has dropped from a high of 9,621 during the 1930 census to 2,809 in 2010.

And with lawyers, there's the added problem of high student loan debt. "I think the biggest inhibitor out there is debt," says Phil Garland, who practices law in Garner, Iowa, and chairs the Iowa Bar Association's Rural Practice Committee. "You have a lot of kids who are carrying $100,000 or more in debt, and small-town lawyers don't necessarily [get paid] as well."

Debt also prevents brand new lawyers from buying an entire practice outright, one traditional way to get started. And then there's love and marriage.

"They want to be in a place where it's easy to meet people, especially if they're single," says Francy Foral of the State Bar of South Dakota. "Or if they have a significant other or spouse, the other barrier is they're going to make sure they have opportunities for their significant other as well."

Francy Foral in the forest of South Dakota

Francy Foral says that nine months after South Dakota became the first state to pay lawyers to move to the rural areas, one had set up shop and others were on the way. Photo by Greg Latza.

To fight these demographic trends, Foral's state went big. In 2013, South Dakota attracted national attention when it became the first—and so far, only—state to pay young lawyers to relocate permanently to rural areas.

Modeled on similar programs for medical professionals, South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Program promises young attorneys $12,000 a year for five years if they move to a qualifying county of 10,000 or fewer people. The payments are designed to cover 90 percent of the cost of attending the University of South Dakota's School of Law. Before June 30, 2017, the state aims to recruit 16 participating attorneys.

The program was the result of consistent advocacy by South Dakota Supreme Court's Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who gives a yearly state of the judiciary speech for state leaders. Gilbertson included the rural attorney shortage for several years running and won an ally in State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, who drafted legislation in 2013 authorizing the program and its funding.

Goetzinger adds that the direct-payments model was difficult to get through the state legislature because of the financial commitment. To make it acceptable, supporters gave the program an end date and required the state to put up only half of the money. Another 35 percent of payments come from participating counties, and the final 15 percent comes from the state's bar foundation. The program demonstrates the State Bar of South Dakota's commitment, Goetzinger says. The Rural Attorney Recruitment Program took effect in July 2013. Nine months later, in April, the program already had one participant practicing law, two others who were awaiting bar exam results and several interested law students, Foral says.

The response "is beyond, quite frankly, our expectations," Goetzinger says.

Jake Fischer is outstanding in his field

Jake Fischer specializes in agricultural law and is the first participant in South Dakota's program to recruit rural attorneys: "It really is eye-opening to learn how much legal work there is to be done," he says. Photo by Greg Latza.


South Dakota has been a leader among states that are trying to address a lack of attorneys in rural areas. In addition to the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program, it also has Project Rural Practice, a task force of the state bar that advocates for and supports young attorneys who choose rural South Dakota. Foral says rural recruitment has been a frequent topic of discussion at the Jackrabbit Bar Conference, which brings together bar personnel from eight Mountain and Plains states. And last spring, the University of South Dakota held a rural practice symposium that Goetzinger says attracted visitors from more than 10 states.

The Rural Attorney Recruitment Program has also caught the eye of bar leaders. Silkenat says press coverage for the program helped him integrate rural attorney programs into the Legal Access Job Corps. In July, the corps announced seven "catalyst grants" to innovative programs that address low-income legal needs while also providing training to young lawyers. Two grants, to Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Nebraska State Bar Association, are expressly aimed at enhancing rural access to justice. The Arkansas grant will fund fellowships for new attorneys who will work in rural areas for a year, then with people of modest means for another two years. The Nebraska grant will fund an existing program. Another grant, to the Vermont Bar Association, is not expressly about rural justice but will support new solos and small firms in an overwhelmingly rural state.

And Linda Klein, the only declared candidate for the ABA presidency in 2016-2017 and a former chair of the House of Delegates, got involved in her state after learning about South Dakota's program at the 2012 Jackrabbit Bar Conference.

"I had been president of the State Bar of Georgia in 1997-98, and I knew that 70 percent of our lawyers were in Atlanta," says Klein, managing shareholder of Baker Donelson's Atlanta office. "So I realized that this was a problem not just in South Dakota, but it was a problem everywhere."

But because direct payments are expensive and it's difficult to convince politicians to approve them, most U.S. institutions are not following South Dakota's model.

Garland, the Iowa lawyer who heads that state bar's Rural Practice Committee, says Iowa's program is more typical of state rural-lawyer recruitment programs. His committee matches law students—mostly from the University of Iowa, Drake University in Des Moines and Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska—with rural lawyers who are looking for summer clerks or new associates. "They need to come and see what we're doing is real law and get used to the community," he says.

The summer clerkships meet an additional goal: giving the established lawyer time to get to know the young lawyer. If it's a good match, Garland says, the established lawyer may be able to offer a higher starting salary to account for the fact that the student already knows the office. And that's important, because he says offers from rural lawyers are competing for "very employable" students with higher offers from city law firms.

To the west, the Nebraska State Bar Association is taking a similar approach. Law students from Creighton and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and lawyers with fewer than two full years of practice, can apply to be part of the NSBA Rural Practice Initiative's bus tours. Held annually, these typically bring young lawyers to two small towns each year. The students meet with local leaders, tour the towns' landmarks and, in the evening, do "speed dating" interviews with local attorneys.

The recent ABA grant means the NSBA will be able to sweeten the deal for both sides, expanding the program in 2015. The money will partially fund 15 summer clerks next year.

Sam Clinch, associate executive director of the NSBA, says 12 of Nebraska's 93 counties have no lawyers at all.

"It's interesting, when we go out on this bus tour, every lawyer that meets with a student said if they find the right fit, they would hire that lawyer that day," he says. "So there's a definite need for lawyers."


In Maine, former state bar president Bill Robitzek saw the same need in the state's northern counties: Older lawyers were reaching retirement age without successors. The state has one law school, at the University of Maine in Portland, and Robitzek says graduates typically stay in that area. That's the result of a June report from the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, which found that 10 percent of the lawyers outside Cumberland County, where Portland is located, are younger than 35. After the job market dried up, that scarcity caused problems.

"If you keep pumping out 80 lawyers a year, you're going to max out opportunities" in Portland, he says. "And many of the young lawyers didn't know of the existence of opportunities outside the Portland area. Basically, what I saw were two problems that might solve each other."

So Robitzek launched an informal matchmaking program—connecting law students with rural attorneys who were looking for successors. As president of the state bar in 2013, he also encouraged the law school to introduce students to rural Maine. This started with a road trip for law students up the coast, toward the less-populated areas of northern Maine. This year, lawyers from Lincoln County returned the favor by visiting the law school. And law student Danylle Carson—Robitzek's former assistant—has co-organized the Maine Law Student/Bar Networking Society, designed to connect law students with rural job opportunities.

Robitzek characterizes the efforts as very informal, but still planned to meet with Maine Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley to discuss formalizing the process. Meanwhile, the June report (PDF) from the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar made several recommendations for luring more young attorneys into rural Maine, including a "boot camp" teaching skills for solo practitioners, technology grants for new rural lawyers, a solo/small firm email discussion list and recruitment or internship programs like those in other states.

In North Dakota, a rural attorney shortage is complicated by the state's oil boom, which has roughly doubled the population in some areas. Along with all those extra people come extra legal needs—not just oil and gas work, but more ordinary civil and criminal needs. In these regions, says Kathryn Rand, dean of UND's law school, the problem is not finding a private attorney; it's finding one who is available.

"Even in counties that had a small number of attorneys, those attorneys have been so overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done that they are turning away business," Rand says.

Hagerty tackled the issue as 2012-2013 president of the State Bar Association of North Dakota. She worked with Rand and the law school to start a clerkship program for law students, matching them with rural state judges. With funding from the state supreme court, the program offered a summer stipend to two to three students starting in 2014. If the relationship works out, the students and judges may continue working together via phone and the Internet during the school year.

Hagerty describes it as a first step, a program that could be launched quickly while the bench and bar think of more solutions. But interest was so high—even from federal judges and private attorneys—that there was immediate interest in expanding it.


In Georgia, Klein says, she and other former presidents of the state bar were discussing solutions this past spring. They were examining all kinds of programs in other states, and they have a high-profile champion in the form of Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, who made the rural attorney shortage part of his first state of the judiciary address in February. That speech acknowledged that six of the state's 159 counties have no lawyers at all; another 40 have 10 attorneys or fewer.

Thompson sees the problems firsthand, as a leader in the court system. They include a flood of pro se defendants who slow down the system and rarely win.

"Most people who are not represented have bad results," notes Thompson. "And the truth is, a lot of people who don't have lawyers don't get quote-unquote 'justice.' "

Georgia's not the only state thinking about the rural justice gap. Montana is working on a program, which will in part address the spillover from North Dakota's oil boom. Silkenat mentions that the New York State Bar Association is discussing the issue. The Vermont Bar Association and Vermont Law School are running a new incubator program in 2014-2015, helping three new attorneys set up solo practices for underserved communities, including rural communities. And in New Hampshire, state Bar Association Board of Governors President Lisa Wellman-Ally launched a rural practice program when she started her term in June. She described it as her central issue.

"My goal is to attract attorneys to those more rural areas so the people in the rural areas will have access to justice—they'll have attorneys who are local, part of their communities," says Wellman-Ally, who practices law in Claremont, New Hampshire, "and to show [new attorneys] that there is a quality of life that is different in these rural areas."

City vs. Country

There's plenty of work to go around, but rural lawyers need to be able to hit the ground running

Even if not many new attorneys are choosing rural law, proponents have plenty of arguments in its favor. Chief among these is lifestyle. Project Rural Practice offers testimonies from young attorneys who frequently cite work-life balance or a better environment for children. That's something that might be missing from the stereotypical big-city associate job, and something that surveys say workers born after 1980 want.

Bruce Cameron, author of Becoming a Rural Lawyer, says it's not so much about balancing work and life; it's about living in a community that understands you have both constraints.

Clients "understand that there are times when life takes precedence; there are times when work takes precedence," he says. "It's easy to tell a client: 'I'll get to that—but, hey, I have to deal with a sick kid.' "

Jake Fischer, the first participant in South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Program, made a conscious decision to prioritize lifestyle when he joined the program. Fischer was born and raised in Parkston, South Dakota—population 1,508 in the 2010 census—but attended college and law school at the University of Minnesota. He enjoyed living in the Twin Cities, where he launched his legal career, got married and bought a house.

But after their daughter was born in 2013, Fischer and his wife, Robin, began to think about the time commitment to their jobs and where they'd like to raise a family. Ultimately, that led Fischer to join the Swier Law Firm, an established firm in South Dakota, and to open its new office in Corsica, population 592.

Fischer specializes in agricultural law, but he also takes whatever comes—a requirement at a rural firm, he says, and something he enjoys.

"It allows me to take on new projects all the time," he says.

Major issues for his clients include estate planning for transfer of large farms and land sales, which can be high-dollar transactions. But he's also done a bit of litigation and put himself on the public defender list for a few counties near Corsica.

All of this has allowed Fischer to take on responsibility faster than an associate at a big-city firm might.

"If you're a young attorney looking for experience, you're instantly able to get into the courtroom and represent clients in a serious and substantial matter," he says.

And there's plenty of work.

"I've worked in three different legal communities with my firm so far, and there's always people calling," he says. "It's really eye-opening to learn how much legal work there is to be done."

Cody Cooper might agree. As of June, he had a long waiting list of clients ready to use his services—largely for wills and property matters, reflecting the demographics of Wishek. At the time of his interview, Cooper expected to be licensed in Minnesota soon. After being admitted in Minnesota, the North Dakota bar needs six to eight months to do his character and fitness check, something he wished he knew before his move. While he waited, he was volunteering, working with another local lawyer and getting to know his neighbors.

The flip side of all the work, says Cameron, is that young attorneys interested in a rural practice have to be ready to hit the ground running. That means getting into the courtroom right away and also knowing how to run an office. Those are skills that students may not have if they planned to become urban law firm associates.

Cameron also warns that rural practice is a long-term commitment. "This is not where you [say]: 'I'm going to put in five years and have the thing on my resumé and move on,' " he says. "It's going to take that five years just to get your practice up and going."

That's because relationships are vital in a small-town practice, Cameron says. A new lawyer has to build trust and a good reputation. Community involvement may be even more important than conventional advertising.

The chance for greater, and more personal, community involvement was another reason Fischer moved back to South Dakota. Like Cooper, he has plans to run for office after he's better established in the area. That's something he says he couldn't have done back in Minneapolis, where the bigger population meant fewer leadership roles per capita.

He sees public service as a more satisfying way to do good than his old job in Minneapolis, working on energy policy.

"It was engaging work, and I enjoyed my work, but you start to wonder: 'How can I effect change more directly?' " he says. "I've come to the conclusion that being able to participate in local government is a way that I feel more fulfilled."

There are also sacrifices when choosing a rural practice. Cameron notes that lawyers with families have to think about the move for the entire family—the logistics of the commute for a spouse, schools for kids and changes in cost of living. The Fischers' move meant a shift to part-time work for Robin, who was the principal of a charter school in Minneapolis. And because she's working less, the move also meant less money—a concern for people with student loans to pay off.

"The money thing was kind of a big issue and it weighed heavily on us, but we also had to re-examine our priorities," attorney Fischer says. "And in the end, we settled on the idea that we're OK with making not quite as much money as a household."

And a rural area might be a bad fit for someone who isn't ready to commit to just one job, Cameron says.

"A small town might have two or three law firms, if it's lucky," he says. "You're looking at a career someplace, because that lateral move to the other law firm in town may not be possible because you're conflicted out."

But there are advantages, too. Cooper says it's helpful, from a marketing perspective, that everyone in Wishek knows his business. And local stores offer him personal credit rather than run his credit card.

Like Cooper and his wife, Mary, the Fischers are doing some farming. In addition to keeping some chickens, Fischer plans to raise grass-fed cattle with his father.

"I love it. I got into a lot of those things as an adult living in Minneapolis, [where] those things are just on fire right now," he says. "Everybody's about understanding food systems and sustainability, doing things on your own. It's sort of built in here."


After publication of "Too Many Lawyers? Not Here," October, the ABA Journal learned that Cody Cooper was not licensed in Minnesota. Cooper now acknowledges that he misrepresented his status, explaining that he had expected to be licensed before publication of the article.

Print and initial online versions should have stated that Wishek, North Dakota, was settled by ethnic Germans fleeing Russia. It also should have reported that the Iowa State Bar Association's Rural Practice Committee matches law students from the University of Iowa—rather than Iowa State—with rural lawyers. The article also misidentified the Down East region of Maine.

The Journal regrets the errors.
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