June 15, 2017

Project Rural Practice: Saving an endangered species by recruiting the Sweet Sixteen

Patrick G. Goetzinger

The Main Street attorney in rural America—including my state, South Dakota—is an endangered species. Because lawyers tend to gravitate toward larger cities, people in  rural areas often have very few lawyers—or none at all—near them to  address  their legal needs.

Meanwhile, new lawyers are entering what we all know to be a very challenging job market. Shouldn’t there be a way to match up new lawyers who need jobs and rural communities who need lawyers? That’s just what the State Bar of South Dakota’s Project Rural Practice has set out to do.

In a pilot project that officially kicked off on July 1, 2013, PRP is matching a select group of lawyers—whom we’ve dubbed the Sweet Sixteen—each with a rural community lacking access to justice. Each of the Sweet Sixteen must make a five-year commitment to live and practice in that community, and each lawyer receives a financial incentive to do so.

What we  did not anticipate was how assisting our rural communities and recruiting the Sweet Sixteen would become such a rally point for our state—as well as draw national attention and support. Here is a closer look at PRP and how it  gained momentum in a relatively short  period of time.

First steps and significant milestones

In 2011, while I was president of the bar, the State Bar of South Dakota formed a multi-disciplinary task force to identify methods of recruiting lawyers to Main Street in rural areas.  Several objectives sprang from the work of the task force that can be generally categorized into three areas:

1) Educate lawyers on bar and practice support resources for attorneys seeking to move to a rural area, and break down barriers to a rural practice. 

2) Develop community incentives among non-lawyer stakeholders and encourage them to make the case for recruiting a lawyer to their Main Street. 

3) Through a website dedicated to PRP, connect lawyers seeking a rural opportunity, veteran attorneys seeking a successor, and communities seeking a lawyer for their Main Street. 

In August 2012, at the ABA Annual Meeting, the SBSD gave a report to the ABA House of Delegates in which we declared the Main Street attorney in rural America an endangered species.  The HOD unanimously approved Resolution 10B in support of PRP. Since then, many positive advancements  have occurred to address the scarcity of Main Street rural attorneys. 

A significant milestone was achieved in the fall of 2012, when the task force unveiled the PRP website.  The website brings together the practice support information that is instrumental to breaking down barriers to a rural practice, an employment board, and community pages and has been described as a match.com for lawyers and communities. The website and its links provide the lawyer interested in a rural practice a one-stop service for fundamental information and resources.

At the 2013 ABA Midyear Meeting, the SBSD was grateful to receive the Louis M. Brown Meritorious Recognition Award from the ABA Division for Legal Services.  The momentum created by this award, PRP’s website, and the unanimous passage of Resolution 10B by the HOD, along with South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson’s relentless support for preserving access to justice in rural America, has raised the profile of PRP in our state.  PRP’s momentum captured the attention of State Sen. Mike Vehle,  who is not a lawyer and is from an urban area but was motivated by Chief Justice Gilbertson’s State of the Judiciary message to find a solution.  

Legislation gives program real muscle

Sen. Vehle, Chief Justice Gilbertson and the SBSD’s executive director, Tom Barnett, drafted legislation in consultation with the governor’s office labeled The Rural Attorney Recruitment Bill, HB 1096. Amid substantial legislative drama and parliamentary maneuvering, HB 1096 passed the legislature and was signed into law in March 2013, securing South Dakota’s status as the first state in the nation to pass legislation specifically to assist recruiting lawyers to rural areas. Further distinguishing HB 1096 was the national attention it received, including a story on the front page of the New York Times

HB 1096 creates a four-year pilot project that provides an economic incentive for qualified attorneys agreeing to practice in rural counties.  Counties with a population of 10,000 or less and determined to be eligible by the Unified Judicial System may participate in the program. The pilot program is limited to 16 attorneys—the Sweet Sixteen. Attorneys must be members in good standing of the SBSD and agree to practice law in the eligible county for five years.  It is important to note that lawyers need not be graduates from the University of South Dakota School of Law in order to be eligible for the program.

Innovative funding, broad-based support

The incentive payment to the lawyer is approximately $13,288 per year throughout the five-year commitment.  For each lawyer participating in the program, the incentive payment will be funded as follows:  The state will fund 50 percent; the local government will fund 35 percent; and the South Dakota Bar Foundation will fund 15 percent. 

A funding formula that required local investment and bar financial support was key to obtaining broad-based support. The state’s funding commitment is locked in for the five-year period.  In addition to the innovative funding requirements, structuring the program as a pilot project that did not require ongoing funding obligations satisfied South Dakota’s frugal, but entrepreneurial legislature and Gov. Dennis Daugaard. 

The program, which became effective on July 1 of this year, is administered by the Unified Judicial System.  Anyone interested in the program can access the legislation, administrative rules, and other materials through the PRP’s website or the Unified Judicial System’s website.  For those who will be in San Francisco for the 2013 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, Tom Barnett will speak about PRP during a panel discussion on transition and succession planning.

Rallying around the Sweet Sixteen

The Sweet Sixteen recruitment program has become a rally point for the SBSD across several platforms.  The bar’s annual meeting in June was infused with excitement created by the program.  The bar’s strategic plan and mentorship program are advanced.  The hunt for the Sweet Sixteen fully engages the alliance between the bar, Young Lawyers Section, USD School of Law, and our non-lawyer stakeholders. 

Knowing that the hunt for the Sweet Sixteen must include law students, the bar is also working with the law school to establish an internship/externship program for rural areas. The bar’s funding commitment for the program has created enthusiasm for the bar foundation’s campaign to increase the size of its endowment.  The benefits of the program have further energized PRP’s non-lawyer stakeholders, notably the County Commissioners Association, a strong advocate of the program.   

The work of PRP provides a template for use by other bar organizations in addressing access to justice in rural areas.  While the benefits of the rural attorney recruitment program to the bar are substantial, the real payback is expressed by Chief Justice Gilbertson, who observed, “South Dakota takes a giant step forward to reverse 50 years of decline in the ability of our citizens in rural areas to have reasonable access to legal services in their home area.” Combining the multidisciplinary approach of PRP with the hunt for the Sweet Sixteen helps assure that rural America is not just viable, but thriving.

Patrick G. Goetzinger

Patrick G. Goetzinger, co-chair of the State Bar of South Dakota’s Project Rural Practice, and the 2011-12 president of the SBSD, is a partner at Gunderson, Palmer, Nelson & Ashmore, LLP, Rapid City, S.D.