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Increasing Access to Legal Services in Rural Areas

Ryan Cwach, Kelsea Kenzy Sutton, and Rachelle M Norberg

Increasing Access to Legal Services in Rural Areas
PatrickZiegler via iStock

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Millions of people live in rural areas throughout the states. These people, like everyone else, need access to legal services, but providing them those services is challenging. South Dakota is one state addressing that issue through its Rural Attorney Recruitment Program (RARP). Here are the stories of three South Dakota attorneys and how they found success one, five, and eight years after graduating from law school. They have survived tornados, thrown justice fireballs, and been elected as leaders in their communities. Some attorneys have found their own path; others have joined RARP. Their work illustrates the types of legal and financial services needed in rural areas.

The State Bar of South Dakota Lays the Groundwork for RARP

The State Bar of South Dakota’s 2010 census revealed that of its 1,861 active in-state members, 65 percent were located in four cities: 35 percent from Sioux Falls; 16 percent from Rapid City; 10 percent from Pierre; and 4 percent from Aberdeen. That census captured South Dakota Supreme Court Justice David Gilbertson’s warning: “We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services. Largely populated areas are becoming islands of justice in a rural sea of justice denied.” The reality was not limited to providing legal services to rural areas. The decline of “main street” lawyers was tied with the other issues, including a local economy’s health, local budgets, and conversations regarding closing courthouses and county consolidation. Consequently, providing legal services to rural areas transcended working strictly with lawyers to address this issue; this issue involved various stakeholders outside of the legal community.

The State Bar’s Project Rural Practice Task Force was the forerunner to RARP. RARP offers a contract to a law student or practicing attorney who agrees to move to and practice law for at least five years in a county with a population under 10,000. In exchange, for five years, a RARP attorney receives incentive payments equal to 90 percent of a year’s tuition at the University of South Dakota School of Law. RARP requires the South Dakota Unified Judicial System (UJS), the State Bar of South Dakota, the county, and the attorney to execute a contract, which sets out each party’s obligations. Among other requirements, attorneys must work a minimum number of hours per week, obtain their own malpractice insurance, live in the county where they work; and, UJS, the state bar and the county each contribute a different percentage of the incentive payment.

A Small Town Lawyer and Legislator—Ryan Cwach

After graduating from the University of Iowa College of Law in 2011, I moved back to South Dakota and became active in the State Bar’s Project Rural Practice Task Force. During my two years on the Task Force, I met experienced attorneys with rural practices who hinted that they made a good living out in the sticks. They were leaders in their communities with a devoted clientele and a very attractive work-life balance. Patrick Birmingham, an attorney whom I met in April 2013 at a lunch, was all of those things. For the previous decade, he spent winters in Florida while his clients waited for him to return. That sounded pretty good.

Patrick was a Nebraska attorney from the other side of the Missouri River. He was 68 years old when we met, did not have an exit plan for his practice, and was looking for one. Even before this fateful lunch, I contemplated coming home to Yankton, South Dakota. I am a local and my family has been in Yankton County since statehood. I figured I had a decent shot of establishing a hometown law practice. A few short months from our first meeting, I would get my Nebraska law license and join Pat’s practice based in Bloomfield, Nebraska, a small town of approximately 1,200. In 2014, I officially entered into a partnership with Pat on a handshake, and in 2016, Pat would leave it on a handshake.

I consider myself a real estate and probate attorney, but I also draft agreements, set up small businesses, and occasionally litigate. This job opportunity came with a 30-minute commute, and I felt pulled to my hometown of Yankton. My family and my wife’s family were all there. Yankton has a big lake and excellent bike trails. The town had positive, youthful energy, and I wanted to return home. After four years of practicing in the area and getting involved in the community, my family, friends, and neighbors wanted to be clients. In winter 2017, I opened a second office in Yankton.

I do not think my practice is different from other small law firms. We are virtually paperless, and I would be lost without my iPad Pro. I can work from Bloomfield, Yankton, Pierre, or anywhere else, and I do not have a partner pressuring me to work all of the time. I occasionally work past five but rarely work weekends. What has surprised me about my rural practice is that my clients are from all over the country. I have recently done work for clients in Arizona and Georgia. If they have land in northeast Nebraska or southeast South Dakota, I am one of the only young, tech-savvy attorneys in the area.

My rural solo practice has afforded me other opportunities that I would not find in a big city or a large law firm. In 2018, I was elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives as Yankton County’s State Representative. Now, I spend mid-January to mid-March representing my friends and neighbors in Pierre. South Dakota has a part-time legislature, so I can continue my legal practice while we are in session. Doing both is a lot of work, but I have loyal, understanding clients, and I work long hours. When it becomes overwhelming, I just remind myself of how cool it feels to give a speech on the chamber floors, and how lucky I am to serve.

Finding a Rural Practice Home in Community Banking—Kelsea Kenzy Sutton

I knew since the fifth grade that I wanted to be a lawyer. I enjoyed watching TV lawyer dramas and thought I would probably go to Chicago someday and defend people charged with serious crimes (obviously in a fancy office). My path ultimately took a different route—one I’m proud of and grateful for.

I left South Dakota to attend the University of Colorado. By the end of senior year, I was engaged. To my surprise—and counter to my life plan—my fiancé and I agreed that we both wanted to go home to Burke. We got married and split our time between Burke and Vermillion where I attended law school at the University of South Dakota. As an English major and Libra, you can imagine the courses that were my favorite: public interest, international human rights, criminal law, tribal courts, first amendment, antitrust. No secured transactions, business organizations, tax law, or trusts and wills for me, thank you. I wanted to do real justice for people who had faced discrimination or had been treated unfairly, and I was pretty sure there would be no shortage of injustice to thwart in rural South Dakota.

The prospect of rural law practice was made easier by a series of privileged connections. First, I was going home to Burke, where I grew up and had family and friends. Second, I had known rural lawyers—and maybe even more importantly rural women lawyers—my whole life. The judge in my circuit was a woman. The local prosecutors were women. A majority-female firm near my hometown had an active, diverse, and growing practice. All this to say: I had close access to models of what my life might look like, and they were cool, interesting, and whip-smart.

The family business is community banking, and my dad and grandpa did not let me sneak off to college and law school without planting a seed about what being a compliance officer for a bank might be like. I wanted to practice courtroom justice, but now compliance did not seem like a bad option, either.

Law school graduation could not come soon enough. I was ready to move home and serve the people and community with whom I share a history and a future. I was excited to be offered an associate position at Johnson Pochop & Bartling in Gregory. I spent two years there practicing family law, criminal defense, appellate work, and employment law litigation. I worked closely with experienced attorneys who let me learn from their cases and immediately encouraged me to take on my own clients and work toward the types of cases that interested me. I did not feel the pressure that I have heard described by big firm associates to bill a required number of hours and sacrifice my personal life for work. We worked hard, but we also had a lot of flexibility around when and where to get our work done. I learned so much about client communication, persuasive writing, and lawyerly friendship—it was a wonderful experience.

In 2016, First Fidelity Bank’s longtime in-house attorney decided to transition toward retirement, and I was presented with the opportunity to interview for the position. It was a difficult decision, but my mentor at the firm graciously encouraged me to take the opportunity to work with my family.

I have now been with the bank for three years. It was a big change to go from working with a team of lawyers to the only lawyer making final recommendations. It was also an adjustment to go from handling private client cases over the course of weeks (or even years) to one client and spending much of my day trying to answer questions with limited time for research. I like to encourage other lawyers to consider in-house positions.

Did I make it to my fancy urban office? Nope. Am I fighting the system and throwing justice fireballs? Maybe not in an immediately obvious way. I draft policies and give advice that attempts to prevent injustice in the first place. I help stop discrimination from happening rather than suing a business for messing up. I get to advocate for workplace changes that make our employees’ lives even better. This, too, is justice.

When considering what law practice is the best fit for you, make sure you are not beholden to others’ ideas of success. You might travel from a corner office in Chicago to a smaller, bookshelf-lined office in Burke, South Dakota. You just might love it.

Building My Home and Practice in Burke—Rachelle Norberg

I am a fifth-generation farm kid born and raised in Burke, a small farming community in south-central South Dakota. I never dreamed I would practice law in my hometown. The summer after 1L, I interned for Jack Gunvordahl, a solo practitioner. He was looking for someone to take over his firm to reduce his caseload and eventually retire. A year after interning, I agreed to buy the firm before completing 3L year.

I knew coming back to Burke, located in Gregory (population 4,226), would mean forgoing the immediate financial security of an associate or government attorney. I would not be able to charge the same hourly rate as an attorney in Sioux Falls or Rapid City because my clientele would be reliant on the agricultural economy. RARP and its financial incentives offered an excellent opportunity. In December 2017, I signed a contract to become a rural attorney in Gregory County.

I graduated from law school in May 2018, began working at the firm in August, and was sworn into the South Dakota State Bar in September. By January 1, 2019, I took over the firm’s operation. There were multiple practice areas in which I would need to become competent to meet the legal needs of my community. So far, I practice in probate, estate planning, real estate, municipal law, and criminal defense.

I am also expanding Gunvordahl Gunvordahl & Norberg to meet the need for local, affordable, and effective legal services. When I bought the law firm, I also purchased its complementary title company. One additional role I filled when I took over the firm was that of city attorney for the city of Burke. I also obtained my abstracter’s license and real estate broker’s license to expand my real estate work. In February, I completed training for and was appointed to facilitate emergency mental illness commitments across three counties. After meeting with clients, I discovered the need for attorneys who are also licensed in Nebraska, only 15 miles away. There were no nearby South Dakota attorneys with dual licenses, so this summer I was sworn in the Nebraska bar to serve those clients’ needs.

One of my personal struggles in moving back to Burke was the lack of housing availability. My solution was to buy a Governor’s House, a state-run housing program where affordable homes are built at the state’s low-security penitentiary. Inmates receive certification for various trades required to build homes, such as plumbing, electrical, and heating and cooling, and are provided an opportunity to integrate back into the workforce. The new homes help provide affordable housing in communities like Burke where a lack of housing negatively affects the workforce. I moved into my home this past fall, and I assisted two families with applications for Governor’s Houses. Both families lost their homes during Burke’s August 6, 2019, F-1 tornado.

Practicing in a rural community has been more challenging than I ever would have imagined. It has also been exponentially more rewarding. Every day is different at the office, and every day I get to help my friends, neighbors, and community with a variety of legal issues and projects. I also get to see the impact I make by looking out the window. I cannot imagine being anywhere else.

South Dakota’s Ongoing Commitment to Rural Communities

On March 20, 2019, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem signed House Bill 1046, which removed the 2022 sunset from RARP and extended the program indefinitely. In an address to the South Dakota legislature, Chief Justice David Gilbertson captured the value of RARP:

It is clear that we are obtaining quality participants to go into the South Dakota Rural Attorney Program. Both the attorney and the county are beneficiaries. This is taxpayer money that is well invested and will pay long term benefits for the participant counties and the state. It assists the infrastructure of these rural counties to vibrantly expand and grow, rather than wither away and ultimately become uninhabited with only remnants of courthouses and what once was a thriving rural society…