Wednesday, February 13, 2013

S.D. considers incentives to make lawyers go rural

South Dakota seems to have enough lawyers; they just aren't practicing in the right places. That's the thinking behind recent legislation that would offer financial incentives for lawyers to practice in rural counties that currently rely on out-of-town lawyers. South Dakota's rural lawyer shortage reflects some of the wider problems of rural depopulation and the increasing urban concentration of professionals.

Senate Bill 218 aims to start a four-year pilot program that would reimburse tuition for law students who work in rural South Dakota areas for five years after graduation, or would financially reward attorneys who move to rural areas, Andrea Cook reports for the Rapid City Journal.  The state and beneficiary counties would share the cost, with counties paying 35 percent, Cook said.

"We have enough attorneys in this state, but they're all condensed into basically four counties," South Dakota Supreme Court Justice David Gilbertson, a supporter of the bill, told Cook. She reported that 65 percent of the lawyers in South Dakota live in the state capital of Pierre, Rapid City, Aberdeen or Sioux Falls. On the other end of the scale, the Sixth Judicial Circuit in the middle of the state has keenly felt the lawyer shortage, with about half of its 14 counties in the circuit having fewer than four lawyers, Cook reports.

"When someone facing criminal charges qualifies for court-appointed representation, judges often have to look far away to make defense attorney appointments," Cook said, explaining that the bill for each out-of-town court appointed lawyer translates to $1 per mile traveled and $88 per hour with clients. In addition to the expense, he siad, relying on distant lawyers also means long court days and difficulties in scheduling.

Complicated cases that need more than one attorney can quickly turn into a  logistical nightmare:
"It's really tough where you have an abuse and neglect case where you got maybe one mom and a couple dads and you need an attorney for the kids," Fourth Judicial Circuit Judge Warren Johnson, told Cook.

Gay Tollefson, a state attorney in rural Haakon County who worries about leaving her clients without a lawyer when she retires, told Cook young replacement attorneys might be intimidated by starting in a small town and might have trouble finding work for their spouses: "You're taking a big chance and I think that scares people." (Read more)

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