Old North Dakota Courthouse

Courthouse, Valley City, ND, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,LC-USZ62-73197

Granted, the human population of North Dakota tends to be spread a bit thin, but when 21 counties have fewer than 4 attorneys (4 counties have no lawyers , 8 counties only have 1), access to justice is problematic and a lawyer’s retirement can have far-reaching consequences.

One way to solve the problem is to follow the town of Wishek’s example and directly recruit attorneys (See Wishek Wants You).  Another way is to make law students and young lawyers aware of the benefits and opportunities that are available in small towns and rural areas, and that’s the approach that the North Dakota Bar Association, in partnership with the state courts, and the University of North Dakota Law School, is taking.

Using funding provided by the North Dakota Legislature, this partnership created three summer clerkships designed to allow law students to work for judges in counties with less than 15,000 people. While this is still just a pilot program, the program hopes to expand and provide not only clerkships, but externships with State’s Attorneys and private practitioners.

If you’re wondering what a lawyer in the wilds of North Dakota possible do, Judge Gail Hagerty puts it this way:

There are real legal needs out there: more oil and gas law, an increasing amount of probate matters, more crimes to deal with, and more need for family law. Right now, without immediate access to legal services, it’s very difficult for people, and it can increase costs. We also need more attorneys to do indigent defense work, we need more prosecutors and we need more new practitioners. There’s a lot of potential in rural communities.

There’s a lot more probate work, for example, with property that wasn’t probated for generations, Now we need to clearly establish ownership of the land and mineral rights. Some of that land was once thought not to be worth very much, but it’s suddenly worth a lot more.

From family law to probate, from business law to energy law, from criminal defense to prosecution – seems like those new rural lawyers are going to be busy.

See:

A hat tip to:

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-8311 (c) Leslie-Judge Co., J.M. Flagg artist

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-8311 (c) Leslie-Judge Co., J.M. Flagg artist

So you want to be a rural lawyer, well opportunity may just be knocking at your door. The town of Wishek, North Dakota is looking to an independent attorney to open a full time law office in the community now that their previous attorney has retired.

Wishek is a small community (pop. 1002 last time the census went through) in the rolling hills and open spaces of south central North Dakota that sees having a local attorney as a valuable commodity, so the Wishek Job Development Authority (JDA) is offering a number of incentives to help entice an attorney to set up shop and put down roots. You’ll have to talk to the JDA directly about the particulars of their incentive package but there is talk that it could include assistance in locating an office, housing and with the cost of relocation. The previous attorney may also be available for consulting and mentoring.

One word of caution – this position comes complete with upper midwest prairie winters – so if you’re not a fan (or at least some what tolerant) of snow, cold wind, and the occasional dip down to arctic temperatures, this might not be the job for you. On the other hand, if you are thinking that it might be nice to start a practice some place that actually wants a lawyer and are willing to invest in several lawyers of warm clothes then you and Wishek might be a match.

For more information, contact Duke Rosendahl, the Wishek JDA director (for contact information, check the Wishek, ND website). This is a limited time offer and the deadline for applications is December 31, 2013.

Lawyers getting scarce in Nebraska (hat tip to Sidney Sun Telegraph)

The Nebraska State Bar Association is reporting that many Nebraska counties lack sufficient numbers of lawyers to adequately serve the needs of the client base. Currently 12 counties have no lawyers, the end result being that clients are traveling 200+ miles in order to access legal services (unintended consequence #2 is that these clients are not only taking the dollars they would spend on lawyers out of the county, they are taking the dollars they would spend on other things as well). The good news is that the Nebraska State Bar Association has started an initiative to try to encourage law students to consider a rural law career – pointing out things like the accelerated career advancement (average time to partner in  a rural firm: 4-5 years), and the availability of a challenging workload. The program includes tours of small towns and, in its inaugural year, connected at least 2 – 3 graduates with jobs (hey, it’s a start).

OK, So I wasn’t the first with the idea to map where lawyers aren’t

The South Dakota Bar Association beat me to the punch with their map of “Lawyer Population in Rural Areas“, and if that’s not bad enough, I’m betting it’s even more accurate than mine ’cause they most likely had professionals do it (not that I’m jealous or anything).

The reviews thus far for: On Becoming a Rural Lawyer

Susan Carter Liebel has posted a thoughtful review of my book over on Solo Practice University. Caroline Elefant of My Shingle fame was very generous with her review, as were the folks over at SDRuralLawyer, who listed my book as one of their featured books.

Distribution of Lawyers in Minnesota

Minnesota Lawyers by Zip Code. Pin color relates to count – violet = 1,  blue = 2, green = 3-5 yellow = 6-16, orange = 17 – 70, red = 71+

When it comes to the shortage of rural lawyers and the whole access to justice issue, Minnesota is not the first state that pops to mind. After all, the raw numbers would tend to indicate that there’s not much of a lawyer problem here in the land of 10,000 lakes; after all there are some 11.2 lawyers per 10,000 residents which puts us 12th in the nation (based on the currently available Avery Index). Especially when we look at the situation in our neighboring states: Iowa (6.2 per 10,000, rank 46), Wisconsin (6.8 per 10,000, rank 45), North Dakota (4.4 per 10,000, rank 51), and South Dakota (5.8 per 10,000, rank 48). But I’m not sure that the raw numbers really tell the whole story – it’s not so much a matter of how many, as it is a matter of where (and how old).  So, I took a look at the where the lawyers really are (or aren’t) here in Minnesota based on Zip Code (a task far easier than trying to sort things out by county). Granted the resultant map is a bit crude (those darn Google Earth pins really don’t scale well), but it serves to illustrate some of the gaps out beyond the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. The basic gist being that as one moves away from the metro area, law firms become smaller, fewer, and more dispersed.

Admittedly, my data is somewhat crude; I am looking at raw counts and I am not compensating for lawyers who are retired, who are otherwise not taking private clients (e.g.: in-house counsel, in politics, teaching, etc.), or a slew of other variables (data overlap, doubled counts, correcting for outliers, etc.) so don’t for a moment think this is in any way statistically rigorous or significant.

As I look at this map, there are two things that strike me. The first being that I’d like to know the age of those violet, blue and green dots out beyond the metro cluster. Based on my observations, odds are about a third of them are within 5 years of retirement (if not already retired – remember, for the rural lawyer retirement usually means you spend slightly less time in the office and slightly more time fishing – unless of course you move to a sun belt state) and another third have the midpoint of their career in their review mirror and are starting to think about succession planning and eventual retirement. The other thing is that access to justice is as much about income as it is about distribution. Just as lack of income can great an access desert” in the midst of a lawyer-dense metro area, so, too, can a simple lack of lawyers. The only good news is that it is far easier to fix the latter (and potentially more profitable for the lawyers involved) than it is to fix the former.

382606_3276Today’s Leader Post reports on the University of Saskatchewan’s efforts to recruit rural lawyers.

The lack of rural lawyers is not just a problem here in the US; the root causes – population shifts away from rural areas, practicing rural lawyers looking at retirement and practices closing because there is no successor – are not localized phenomenon.

The article reports on the University’s efforts to address 2 problems common to rural lawyer recruitment: a lack of familiarity with available opportunities, and the siren song of a big city practice. While the University’s College of Law is just beginning to address the later issue (the preliminary ideas seem to be focused on some form of loan forgiveness and modeled after a program the Saskatchewan government offers medical students), the school is actively addressing the former by providing day trips to rural areas for interested students.

Rural law practices don’t happen simply because a lawyer hangs out a shingle. They happen by building a connection to the community; it’s basically about being the right person in the right place at the right time and frankly, the only way to find the right place is to go out and spend time in rural areas and small towns (find the right place and you become the right person). Now, unless there is a sign from above – lightning flashes, thunder booms – a day trip is really not enough time to evaluate a rural area (if they know yo are coming, just about anyone can be charming for a few hours) but it is enough time to make a few connections, to collect some contact information, to start thinking about opportunities, and perhaps to plan for the next trip.

flavor of the weekIt seems that, thanks to HB 1096 South Dakota’s attempt at rural lawyer recruitment is riding high in the press and the blogosphere. Seems that everyone from the New York Times to the ABA Journal are reporting on it. Even Above the Law is throwing their two cents in.

The various responses seem to be a mixed bag, which is to be expected; after all at first glance $12,000 yearly stipend for a 5 year term in a rural county (and in South Dakota, rural is rural) seems like a poor trade. But, this really isn’t designed to recruit just any lawyer, it is designed to encourage South Dakota grown young lawyers to head out to those under-served counties. While $12,000 does not seem like a terribly large incentive, at the end of 5 years, that $60,000 could make a serious dent in one’s student loans.

Nor is does this seem to be an attempt to reformulate legal education along the lines of medical school. It does seem to be taking an idea from a program that works (seems its harder to get doctors to practice in rural communities then it is to get lawyers out there) in order to address at least one concern (how do I pay my loans) new lawyers have about heading out on their own.

South Dakota leads the way in recruiting rural lawyers. House Bill 1096 is now law and makes South Dakota the first state to have legislation designed to encourage lawyers to practice in rural areas.

Any South Dakota county with a 10,000 population or less and any attorney licensed in South Dakota is eligible to take part in the 4 year pilot program. The program provides a yearly incentive payment to the attorney and the attorney agrees to practice in the eligible county for at least 5 years. The pilot program is capped at 16 attorneys and enrollment closes on July 1, 2017.

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